Vitamins help to slow eye disease
Fifty years ago, when 76-year-old George Gover looked into the future, he didn't see himself going blind.
But he did envision a time when science would prove what he believed -- that supplemental vitamins can improve a person's health.
It's because of vitamins, he now says, that some of his sight has been saved.
"These vitamins Dr. Loo has me taking have slowed the macular degeneration, so I can still see in my left eye, actually in both eyes," Gover said recently as he waited to see Dr. Roy Loo at the Retina Consultants of Nevada office on Maryland Parkway.
"The vitamins have stabilized Mr. Gover's vision, just like the government's national study suggested," said Loo, an ophthalmologist who has treated Gover for three years.
Gover and 15 million other Americans suffer from age-related macular degeneration, AMD, a loss of central vision that is the leading cause of blindness for those 55 and older in the United States.
It was just over three years ago that a 10-year placebo-controlled clinical study of more than 4,500 people sponsored by the National Eye Institute demonstrated that people at high risk for developing advanced stages of AMD lowered that risk by about 25 percent when treated with a high-dose combination of vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, zinc and copper.
In the same high-risk group, including people with intermediate and advanced AMD in just one eye, vitamins reduced the risk of vision loss by about 19 percent.
Those in the study who did not have AMD or were in the early stages of the disease did not have any apparent benefit from the vitamin regimen.
Authors of the study caution that the nutrients are not a cure, nor will they restore vision already lost. But they can play a role in slowing progression of the condition.
"Mr. Gover was fortunate that the study came out when it did," Loo said. "I wasn't giving vitamins for treatment of his condition until that study."
"I can't tell people enough that they should get their vision checked every year once they get in their 50s," Gover said. "Taking a few pills every day to help keep your sight isn't a bad deal."
With baby boomers aging -- studies show by the year 2025 the population of people over the age of 65 in the United States will be six times higher than it was in 1990 -- the number of AMD cases will dramatically increase.
Dr. Carl Kupfer, former director of the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health, has said that macular degeneration will soon take on aspects of an epidemic.
Macular degeneration occurs from deterioration or breakdown of the macula, a small area in the retina at the back of the eye that allows an individual to see fine details and to perform tasks that include driving and reading.
Though it reduces vision in the central part of the retina, it does not affect peripheral vision. So a person may be able to see the outlines of a clock, yet not be able to tell the time. Reading can be difficult or impossible.
Why macular degeneration develops is unknown. It increases with age. Risk factors include a family history of the condition, sunlight exposure over a lifetime, smoking, gender (women), high blood pressure and race (Caucasian).
There are two common types of AMD, "dry" and "wet." About 90 percent of people have the less serious or "dry" form, which is caused by aging and thinning of the tissues of the macula. Usually vision loss is gradual.
About 10 percent of the more serious macular degeneration cases are "wet," which result when abnormal blood vessels form beneath the retina at the back of the eye. Vision loss may be rapid when these new blood vessels leak fluid or blood.
Dr. Michael Cooney, head of Duke University's Center for Macular Degeneration, said it is important to catch AMD cases early so they don't develop into the "wet" form. Thousands of people, he said, can fight off blindness by taking the vitamin regimen.
Gover developed the "wet" form in his right eye years ago. Though he initially lost vision in the eye, operations have given him some vision back.
"I have always felt that there would have been far more studies on the benefits of vitamins if the pharmaceutical companies could have found ways to make money off natural ingredients," said Gover, a former marketing manager for Citicorp.
In the study that showed the efficacy of vitamins for macular degeneration, the National Eye Institute collaborated with eye care company Bausch & Lomb, which provided the vitamin formulation used by scientists and also financially supported the research.
Though the eye care company has vitamins under its label on the market and has a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign under way, doctors say patients aren't limited to the Bausch & Lomb product.
"As long as the patients take the right vitamins when we want them to, they can get the vitamins anywhere they want," said Loo.
Specific daily amounts of the supplements suggested by researchers are 400 international units of vitamin E; 500 milligrams of vitamin C; 15 milligrams of beta-carotene; 80 milligrams of zinc oxide; and 2 milligrams of copper as cupric oxide.
Gover mixes up his own concoction.
"I just wish I had known which vitamins to take when I first started having eye problems," he said. "If I did, maybe I could still drive a car."