July 25, 2004.
By Yvette Bueno,
For Aaron Beckwith, the losses he has experienced because of age-related macular degeneration go well beyond his loss of sight. He's also lost his ability to enjoy sculpting, his passion as a retiree, his ability to drive through a trail of autumn leaves in Vermont and the ability to watch his grandchildren grow.
Beckwith, diagnosed 20 years ago, was declared legally blind in 2001. He went quickly from suffering from so-called "dry" macular degeneration to "wet" MD -- the more severe form.
The eye disease that affects more than 9 million people nationally is expected to double by 2020 as Baby Boomers age and people live longer. More than 25 percent of people older than 65 have macular degeneration, with the most susceptible group being whites.
There is no cure for the disease, and few available treatments. But new hope may lie in everyday food compounds that promise to protect against the disease.
A recent study found that when sulforaphane, an antioxidant found in broccoli, was added to laboratory cell cultures, the cells were better prepared to fight off oxidants and chemicals that cause the eye tissue to deteriorate.
"We were able to elevate these protective cells by the administration of a compound that is found in broccoli sprouts and thereby boost the capacity to much higher and they are better able to deal with oxidative stress." said Dr. Paul Talalay of John Hopkins University, who co-authored the study, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this month.
Research also has shown some vitamin supplements and dietary changes can have a profound impact on a person's risk for losing vision due to MD.
A recent study published in the Archives of Ophthalmology found a significant relationship between eating fruit and the development of MD. The eating habits of a group of men and women were followed for more than 10 years. Those who had three servings of fruit -- including bananas and oranges -- per day were less likely to develop MD than those who had fewer servings, or who took vitamin supplements.
Beckwith, who leads a Boynton Beach support group for people afflicted with MD, said he relies on friends, new study findings and lots of jokes to deal with his sight loss.
"The most important [thing] is how people feel once they are able to talk about their disease. When they can smile again," said Beckwith. "It is a tough disease. People come to our meeting and call us. A doctor can only spend 15 minutes with you; they can't tell you what macular degeneration is [really] about."
MD will not make a person blind but it can impair independence. Teaching people to live with the disease is part of the group's mission.
MD, identified more than 100 years ago, affects the center of the eye's retina, known as the macula, which is responsible for clear central vision. The dry form of the disease causes blurring, distortion of lines and diminished color perception. As the disease progresses, the sharpness of central vision slowly deteriorates, hampering the ability to read, drive and recognize faces. A blur or a black spot typically appears in the central vision of those afflicted with the disease.
About 10 percent of people who have the dry form go on to develop the wet form. Leaking blood vessels behind the macula indicate severe deterioration. The Food and Drug Administration has approved a few treatments for the wet form of MD. Laser surgeries and medications can stop the bleeding.
Researchers say the future focus of research and treatment will be on ways to protect against the dry form of the disease.
Some physicians claim that nutrients can provide more than protection. A study recently showed that the use of lutein, a compound found in spinach, kale and collard greens, and lutein plus vitamins A, C, E, and beta-carotene improved the visual functioning of patients diagnosed with age-related MD when compared to those using a placebo.
"The lutein antioxidant supplementation trial takes it to another level. It reverses the effect of macular degeneration," said Dr. Allen S. Josephs, president of Vitacost.com, the company that produces the lutein and nutrition supplement in Boynton Beach.
Although lutein has been accepted by many as having protective qualities, researchers say more studies need to be conducted to understand its potential side effects.
"We have no idea that the vitamins are getting to where they are supposed to be going," said Dr. Philip Rosenfeld of Bascom Palmer Eye Institute.
"Most people want reversal, want it to go away," Rosenfeld said. "What if you could slow it down? Wouldn't that be successful?"
Yvette Bueno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4655.
Copyright 2004, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive, Inc.
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