Studies show that antioxidants prevent the retina from damage done by smoking, alcohol, and ultraviolet rays. As we age, the body is less efficient at getting rid of oxidants, and this can cause retinal damage.
An antioxidant called Lutein is hugely beneficial to maintaining eyesight. Lutein is a protection factor—it absorbs harmful wavelengths of light and behaves as a powerful antioxidant. However, the body does not produce its own Lutein, so for this protection system to work effectively we need 6-10mg a day.
It is estimated that the average Western diet contains only 2-3mg per day, which means most of us lack lutein in our food. This is thought to be one of the reasons why macular degeneration has become more common.
Lutein is found in broad-leaf leaves such as spinach and kale and in yellow vegetables such as sweetcorn and yellow peppers. Evidence suggests that a diet rich in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables in general is good for antioxidants.
Drinking alcohol is not necessarily bad for your eyes. Alcohol destroys antioxidants in the body, but the red pigment in red wine is a powerful antioxidant, so there are suggestions that drinking a glass of red wine in the evening won't do any harm in terms of macular degeneration. If you drink too much, however, the positive effects of the pigment are outweighed by the negative effects of the alcohol.
While it might seem odd that exercise can help the eyes, it can be important. Good cardiovascular function is important, as poor circulation affects the blood vessels in the eyes. Research shows that exercise may reduce the risk of sight loss that can occur from high blood pressure, diabetes, and the narrowing or hardening of the arteries.
After ageing, smoking is the biggest risk factor for developing macular degeneration. Research shows that smokers are three to four times more likely to acquire age-related macular degeneration (AMD) compared with non-smokers.
As well as AMD, smokers are about three times more likely to develop cataracts, a major sight-threatening condition. Scientists believe that smokers may be more susceptible because smoking destroys the natural antioxidants in our bodies, which means that the eyes are more susceptible to damage. Whatever the reason may be, the risk of developing a cataract increases the longer and more heavily a person smokes.
Aside from these serious, sight-threatening conditions, smokers are also more likely to have problems if they wear contact lenses. Their corneas run a greater risk of getting irritated, which can seriously affect vision if they subsequently become infected. The good news, however, is that all these risks start to drop as soon as you stop smoking, and they decline steadily the longer you don't smoke.
Protecting your eyes from the sun is very important and should not be underestimated. Under no circumstances should you ever look at the sun directly. Doing so could do irreversible damage to your eyesight and even lead to blindness. Sunlight can damage the retina and the lens of the eye, and studies show that people with outdoor jobs are more likely to suffer eye problems.
The College of Optometrists recommends buying good quality, dark sunglasses (these needn't be expensive). Look for glasses carrying the 'CE' mark and the British Standard BS EN 1836:1997, which ensures that the sunglasses offer a safe level of ultraviolet protection.