6 Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Macular Degeneration

One in three adults suffer from age-related macular degeneration. Here’s how to protect yourself.

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Think of your two best friends. Statistically, one of you is likely to go legally blind. Gulp

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is one of the leading causes of vision loss, affecting more than a third of American adults over age 50. By 2020, almost 3 million Americans will have advanced AMD in at least one eye, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

AMD damages the central part of the retina (the macula) which enables us to see things directly ahead of us in detail. Sometimes AMD progresses slowly, but it often comes on quickly and leads to central vision loss in both eyes.

Those with AMD experience blurry central vision, see straight lines as wavy, or have blank spots in their central vision. Everyday activities like reading, cooking, driving, and working become more challenging, sucking joy from your life.

AMD is often hereditary—you’re at higher risk if an immediate family member has the disease. It’s also more common in women and Caucasians, and in those with light-colored eyes. But lifestyle plays a huge role as well. Here are six ways to reduce your risk, starting today.

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Macular Degeneration Prevention Tip #1: Let Your Retinas Breathe

Smoking doubles your risk of AMD. That’s because your eyes, particularly the retinas, need lots of oxygen to function properly. It’s believed that smoking alters the blood flow in the eye and causes oxidative stress damage to the retina.

It’s never too late to quit. “The risk of developing macular degeneration in those who haven’t smoked in the past 20 years is similar to those who’ve never smoked,” says Mary Beth Aronow, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear.

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Macular Degeneration Prevention Tip #2: Know Your Waist-to-Hip Ratio

People who are obese may have a higher risk of AMD, and they are 32 percent more likely to see the disease progress to more advanced stages, according to a study of more than 31,000 people published in the journal Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science.

Dropping a few pounds can certainly help, but a review published in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Ophthalmology suggests that waist-to-hip ratio may be more important than weight-loss generally.

To calculate your ratio, measure the distance around the smallest part of your waist—below the ribs but above the navel—with a tape measure. Then measure the circumference around the largest part of your butt.

Divide the first number by the second. A healthy ratio for men is 0.9 or lower; for women, it’s 0.85 or lower.

Macular Degeneration Prevention Tip #3: Exercise at Least Three Days a Week

Recent research suggests that regular physical activity keeps your vision sharp.

A study published in Ophthalmology found that 10 hours of light activity (housework, walking) or 8 hours of moderate exercise (brisk walking) per week—when combined with a healthy diet—can reduce your risk of AMD by a factor of four.

A 2017 study review published in the American Journal of Ophthalmology found that at little as three moderate or high-intensity sessions a week will do the trick.

How exactly does exercise help your eyes? In the same way it helps the rest of your body, say researchers. Getting your blood pumping improves circulation, lowers blood pressure, and keeps blood sugar in check.

Macular Degeneration Prevention Tip #4: Free Yourself of Free Radicals

Nearly every cell in your body contains mitochondria, which are like tiny furnaces. They process oxygen and nutrients, creating the energy you need to function.

But, like any furnace, these reactions cause a by-product: free radicals, which are unstable atoms that damage cells. Free radicals are like soot, floating around and wreaking havoc on the body’s systems and organs, including your eyes.

Certain foods, such as processed sugar and alcohol, aren’t processed cleanly by your cells, which produces more free radicals. But healthy foods are packed with free radical assassins: antioxidants.

One type of antioxidants, called carotenoids, may be the best choices for protecting you against AMD. You’ll find them in fruits and vegetables, especially leafy green veggies, such as kale, spinach, collard greens, and lettuce.

In addition, omega-3 fatty acids are high in antioxidants, so eat plenty of fatty fish, like salmon and tuna. Walnuts are also high in omega-3s. Opt for whole foods, not supplements. Recent research suggests that the body does not process the omega-3s in supplements as efficiently.

Finally, a high-glycemic diet is associated with the onset and progression of AMD. High-glycemic foods, which are usually high in added sugar and processed carbs, cause blood sugar to rise quickly. Avoid white bread, white rice, and sugary drinks, opting instead for whole grains, beans, legumes, and water.

Macular Degeneration Prevention Tip #5: Mind Your Heart

High blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, and cardiovascular disease are associated with an increased risk of AMD.

Show your heart some love with regular exercise and a healthy diet. In addition, get plenty of vitamin ZZZ (sleep!) and keep your stress in check.

Here’s a simple way to tame tension: Sit or lie down, shut your eyes, and breathe deeply enough that you feel your belly rise. Hold for a few seconds, then exhale slowly for 10 seconds. Repeat a few more times until you feel relaxed. 

A Harvard study found that this breathing technique slows heart rate and reduces the production of stress hormones.

Macular Degeneration Prevention Tip #6: Test Your Vision at Home

The Amsler grid test can detect an emerging case of AMD. Here’s how it works:

  1. Click here to print the grid. 
  2. Hold it about a foot from your face, and cover one eye. 
  3. Look at the dot in the center of the grid. Note if any of the vertical or horizontal lines appear blurry or wavy. Likewise, note any areas that appear darker or lighter than the rest of the grid.
  4. Check the other eye.

Give yourself this test at least once a week, Aronow says. If you see any oddities on the grid—or notice changes in your vision—schedule an exam and a dilation test.