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Photo: Allen Taylor as seen through rat's eye lenses with cataracts (left) and without (right). Link to photo information
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Scientists Link Nutrition, Eye Health

By Rosalie Marion Bliss
August 1, 2003

Scientists funded by the Agricultural Research Service in Boston, Mass., have found evidence suggesting that protective, antioxidant-rich nutrition--fruits, vegetables and certain grains--could be the least costly and most practical means to delay cataract formation.

About half of those aged 75 and older in the United States will experience some cloudiness in the eye lens, called cataract, which obstructs the passage of light and impairs vision. Over time, oxidative damage to proteins and other components inside the lens causes it to gradually change from transparent to opaque.

Scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University in Boston have studied lens cells that make proteins called crystallins. These proteins act like fiber optics, allowing light to pass through the lens and onto the retina over a lifetime without repair, according to Allen Taylor, chief of the HNRCA's Laboratory for Nutrition and Vision Research.

Inside the lens are antioxidants--which help maintain healthy cells and tissues in the eye and other organs--in the form of vitamins C and E and the phytonutrients lutein and zeaxanthin. In one study underlying ongoing research, the scientists looked at 478 women, aged 53 to 73, who were neither previously diagnosed with cataracts nor diabetic. They conducted eye exams to study the relationship between newly diagnosed cataracts and nutrient intake.

Food intake was assessed from questionnaires completed over 13 to 15 years. Women with the highest intakes of vitamins C and E, riboflavin, folate, beta carotene and lutein/zeaxanthin had a lower prevalence of cloudiness in certain lens areas than did those with the lowest intakes of those nutrients.

In terms of aggregate or total annual cost, cataract surgery is the largest out-patient-surgery expense paid for by the Medicare program. Worldwide, the costs associated with cataract care, including disability and surgery, are now an estimated $6 billion annually.

Read more on this work in the August issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

The HNRCA is funded by the Agricultural Research Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.