Jury still out on lutein for macular degeneration

December 17, 2002 in Nutrition for Older Adults, Vitamins, Minerals, Supplements

Jury still out on lutein for macular degeneration

A recent study revealed that the antioxidant lutein, promoted by some as a way to ward off macular degeneration, had no more effect than a placebo. Researchers at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, randomly assigned 45 healthy young adults to take either lutein supplements or an inactive placebo for 6 months.

Lutein is given to increase the pigment in the macula, located in the center of the eye's retina. The theory is that when you lose macular pigment, macular degeneration sets in. The condition causes a loss of central vision, making it difficult to read, drive or perform other activities that require sharp vision. Macular degeneration can occur during middle age, but the risk increases with age. Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of blindness in the industrialized world. Women are thought to be at higher risk than are men, and smoking, a family history and high cholesterol levels also increase the risk of macular degeneration.

The Oregon researchers measured pigment density in the eye before the study and at one-month intervals throughout the study period. But after 6 months of daily supplementation with lutein, they found no increase in pigment density in the group that took supplements compared to the group that took a placebo. However, the results may differ in those who have the disease. It's possible that lutein may not increase the pigment in those who have adequate amounts, but may help those with a deficiency.

Other studies have found that lutein does boost macular pigment. It would seem that different people metabolize lutein differently. It is possible that men may get more benefit from lutein than women do. And how well lutein works to boost pigment in the macula may depend on how much fat tissue a person has. "Lutein is fat-soluble, so some of it gets deposited in the fat. And so maybe in that case, there is not as much available to the eye.

Even though her study showed no benefit to the supplements, the lead researcher doesn't think taking the supplements would be harmful. Lutein is also found naturally in foods, such as spinach and other leafy green vegetables.

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