Eyesight changes as we age — not for the better

If you’ve ever had those moments when you find yourself squinting at your cell phone or unable to safely drive without prescription glasses, you’re not alone. Changes in our eyesight are inevitable as we age, just like getting wrinkles or gray hairs. While eyesight becoming less sharp is unavoidable for many, the good news is that it can be easily treated with a visit to the eye doctor for prescription glasses, contacts or even laser eye surgery. However, there are more serious eye conditions that present a potential health risk for people over the age of 50, and if not addressed early can lead to vision complications, blindness and even immobility.

Fortunately there are many ways to protect our vision as we age, including healthy habits such as good nutrition. When assessing how to get sufficient intake of key nutrients, consider adding dietary supplements to your healthy-eating regimen. Nutrient loss is a natural part of aging, and dietary supplements can help ensure you’re getting enough of the nutrients you need. In my own clinical practice as a naturopathic doctor, I find many nutrient deficiencies in my older patients, including vitamin B-12, which supports brain health; dietary fiber, which supports heart health and regular bowel function; and omega-3 fatty acid, or fish oil, which is essential for many bodily functions and can also help support eye health.

EPA and DHA are the specific fatty acids found in the omega-3 family that provide the main reason to supplement with fish oil. DHA is a prevalent compound found throughout your body, including your eyes’ retinas. If you’re insufficient in DHA, your eyes, as well as other parts of your body, can be negatively impacted. By regularly eating fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies or sardines — and by regularly we mean, two to three times a week—you may be obtaining sufficient amounts of EPA and DHA. However, data shows that most Americans are not big fish eaters and therefore, their diets are insufficient in omega-3 fatty acids. That’s where fish oil dietary supplements come in.

About fish oil and eye health

There have been many studies that assess the role of fish oil for eye health. Recently, the Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2 (AREDS2), conducted by the National Eye Institute, did not find any added benefit from fish oil for age-related macular degeneration. There are, however, other studies that have found fish oil can play a role in eye health, specifically for a condition known as dry eye.

Dry eye is an age-related eye condition that affects millions of people. In fact, the American Optometric Association estimates that most people over the age of 65 experience some symptoms of dry eye. Dry eye occurs when your tear ducts no longer create tears, or the tears that are being created evaporate too quickly, preventing your eyes from staying moist. Without the much-needed moisture from tears, your eyes become susceptible to contaminants and germs, and the scratchy discomfort that people experience can be unbearable. It can also lead to more serious eye issues. Recent research has found that omega-3 dietary supplements can help support the production of tears and maintain healthy levels of eye moisture, and therefore, can be considered beneficial for people with dry eye.

Benefits of fish oil go beyond eye health

If you take a fish oil dietary supplement to help with dry eye, you’ll also be experiencing other benefits. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to provide benefit for cardiovascular health, and are recognized by authoritative bodies such as the American Heart Association. In women who are pregnant, or thinking of becoming pregnant, omega-3 fatty acids have been found to provide benefits to babies’ brain and eye development.

For any health condition, whether related to the eyes or another body part, smart prevention through good nutrition should become a practice earlier in life and maintained throughout old age. Fish oil and other dietary supplements are safe and beneficial tools for healthy living, but I remind my patients that dietary supplements are not meant to treat or prevent disease. They are meant to supplement the diet and should be taken in combination with a healthy diet, exercise, visiting your doctor regularly and other healthy habits. If you have concerns about your eye health or have a family history of ARED or another eye condition, you should talk with your doctor about how fish oil and other dietary supplements can play a role in your healthy lifestyle.

Duffy MacKay, N.D., Senior Vice President, Scientific and Regulatory Affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor and was co-owner and practitioner of a family-owned New Hampshire complementary and alternative medicine private practice for seven years. Dr. MacKay earned his B.S. in Marine Sciences from the University of California, Santa Cruz and his N.D. from the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, OR. He is licensed in the state of New Hampshire.