There are few things more frightening than the prospect of losing your vision. Not being able to see the faces of the ones you love, watching a favorite movie, or reading a classic novel.
Yet, as we get older, vision loss is an increasingly real possibility. First, there’s the “running out of arm” issue. You know, you hold the menu further and further away from you at the restaurant until you finally concede and buy reading glasses.
Then there’s the almost inevitable development of cataracts, which can thankfully be corrected with surgery. Next is glaucoma, for which there is medication and a few lifestyle factors that help ease the pressure on the optic nerve. And, of course, people with diabetes are always cognizant of their risk of diabetic retinopathy.
Finally, there’s age-related macular degeneration. An awful disease with no cure, macular degeneration doesn’t cause total blindness, but it does wipe out your central vision, leaving just your peripheral vision intact.
Fortunately, researchers from the U.K. have recently discovered that vitamin D3 may help delay age-related changes to the eye by reducing retinal inflammation and protein deposits, and improving function.
There is a new understanding about what causes aging in the human body, and it is telomere shortening. In a nutshell, telomeres are the end caps of every cell’s DNA. They act like the plastic fittings on the ends of your shoelaces, keeping your DNA strands from fraying.
The longer the telomere, the younger your cells will be. But each time your cells divide, your telomeres get shorter. And shortened telomeres can lead to degenerative conditions, including age-related macular degeneration.
Then there’s the fact that, as you age, it is common for your eyes to develop protein deposits known as amyloid beta, the same deposits commonly found in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients. This is often accompanied by chronic inflammation, which worsens telomere shortening and may even contribute to the formation of amyloid beta deposits.
Vitamin D and Vision
Given that studies have shown that people who have higher levels of vitamin D also tend to have longer telomeres, and the fact that vitamin D also helps reduce inflammation, researchers questioned if supplementing with vitamin D could protect the eyes from these effects of aging.
They divided 14 mice into two groups. One group was given subcutaneous shots of vitamin D in safflower oil every three days for six weeks. The second group received just safflower oil for the same time period.
At the start and conclusion of the study period, researchers tested the mice for, among other things, amyloid beta concentrations in the eyes and retinal inflammation.
They found that those mice that had been treated with vitamin D had significantly fewer markers of retinal inflammation, improved retinal function, and increased removal of amyloid beta deposits.
Given these positive results, researchers concluded, “Vitamin D3 treatment may have a more significant impact on the aging human retina and its visual function.” They go on to hypothesize, “Vitamin D3 supplementation in early disease stages may prove a very simple and effective route to limit disease progression.”
D is the Key
While you can get vitamin D by eating foods like salmon, egg yolks, dark leafy greens and fortified dairy products, it is also a good idea to spend some time in the sun, ideally 15 minutes a day without sunscreen.
If you live in the Northern hemisphere or have a job that makes it difficult to meet these requirements, there is supplementation, which may be the best route if you are already in the early stages of age-related macular degeneration.
Although the current recommendation of vitamin D is a mere 400 IU, research shows that many people are severely deficient in this crucial vitamin. Given this, a daily dosage of 2,000 IU is ideal and safe. And look for vitamin D3 in the form of cholecalciferol, the form best absorbed and utilized by the human body.
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 Lee, V et al Vitamin D rejuvenates aging eyes by reducing inflammation, clearing amyloid beta and improving visual function. Neurobiol Aging. 2012 Jan 2. [Epub ahead of print.]
 Richards, JB et al. Higher serum vitamin D concentrations are associated with longer leukocyte telomere length in women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;86(5):1420-5.
 Baeke, F et al. Vitamin D: modulator of the immune system. Curr Opin Pharmacol. 2010;10:482-96.