Plant Pigment May Reverse Vision Loss


Lutein, a yellow pigment found in dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale and collard greens, can reverse some of the symptoms of age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of visual disability in the United States, according to a new study.

As many as 6 million Americans have at least some vision loss because of the disease, and the number is expected to double by 2025 as the baby boom generation ages.

Lutein has previously been shown in several small studies — as well as one major trial to be announced later this month — to delay the onset of macular degeneration. The new study, published last week in the Journal of the American Optometric Assn., was the first to show that it could actually reverse symptoms. But the study was small, involving only 90 subjects, and needs to be repeated on a much larger number of people.

Macular degeneration, which involves genetic and nutritional components, occurs in the area of the eye that provides the central field of vision, interfering with a person’s ability to see details and eventually leading to complete blindness. There is no successful treatment for the disease.

In the study, Dr. Stuart Richer of the North Chicago VA Medical Center and his colleagues gave 10 milligrams of lutein a day to 30 people with the disease, 10 milligrams of lutein and 10 milligrams of an antioxidant to another 30, and a placebo to a third group of 30.

Over the year of the study, those patients getting either formulation of lutein had a modest increase in visual acuity, Richer said, while those receiving a placebo got worse. “This is unprecedented,” Richer said. “But the data doesn’t support calling it a treatment because the study was so small. I prefer to call it an intervention.”

Richer says he tells his elderly patients to eat 3 to 4 ounces of spinach — the equivalent of 10 milligrams of lutein — at least three or four times a week, especially if they are smokers or have blue eyes, both of which are risk factors for the disease. If they can’t or won’t eat spinach, he recommends supplements.

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