Recent research suggests that exercise, especially moderate to vigorous activity such as brisk walking or jogging, and a low-carbohydrate diet may reduce the risk of glaucoma.

Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of vision loss and blindness among adults  starting in middle age. In Spain more than a million people suffer from this disease. Although there are several types of glaucoma, the vast majority of cases appear to be inherited. Exercise and diet are the most effective strategies to reduce risk. Also, getting your eyes checked regularly (every two to three years after 40 and every one to two years after 60) will help uncover glaucoma-related changes that can be treated before irreversible eye damage occurs.

GLAUCOMA SYMPTOMS

Glaucoma occurs when the optic nerve is damaged. It is believed that the cause may be excessive intraocular pressure, but there are cases of glaucoma in which this problem does not occur.

Symptoms do not occur early in the development of the disease. Vision remains normal and there is no pain, but over time you can see rings around light sources and notice that peripheral (side) vision gradually deteriorates. You can see objects in front of you clearly, but you can ignore those next to you. If the disease is not diagnosed or treated, the ability to see objects to the side will eventually be lost and the angle of vision will narrow to complete blindness.

There is a type of glaucoma, called “acute” or “narrow-angle” glaucoma. It can develop suddenly and is considered a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment. Symptoms include severe eye pain, blurred vision, dilated pupils, and sometimes nausea or vomiting. These acute cases represent only 10 percent of all glaucomas.

If caught early, treatment can slow the progression of the disease and sometimes preserve sight. Most people are treated with drops that lower intraocular pressure, which is a risk factor. If that is not enough, other therapies, such as laser treatment or surgery, are used to drain fluid from inside the eye and thereby reduce pressure, but these interventions can only prevent or delay worsening. They do not serve to restore vision because the damage to the optic nerve cannot be repaired.

INTENSE PHYSICAL EXERCISE REDUCES THE RISK OF GLAUCOMA

For years, scientists have been looking for specific measures to prevent vision loss. A recent study suggests that the most effective strategy to prevent glaucoma is to be physically active. Researchers at the University of California, led by Dr. Victoria L. Tseng, found that exercise can change the flow of blood to the eye and the pressure inside. They found that the most physically active people had a 73% lower risk of developing glaucoma compared to the least active people.

To determine the level of physical activity, the researchers measured walking speed and steps per minute using physical activity trackers. After analyzing the data, the research team concluded that for every 10-minute increase in moderate to vigorous physical activity per week, the risk of glaucoma decreased by 25 percent.

WALKING FASTER CORRESPONDS TO A LOWER RISK OF GLAUCOMA

Researchers suggest that people who walk or run at a faster pace and take more steps can further reduce their risk of glaucoma, compared to people who play sports at a slower pace and speed.

Studies have already shown that exercise has a positive effect on intraocular pressure. Running or cycling can lower intraocular pressure by as much as 13 mmHg in glaucoma patients. Even a brisk 20 minute walk can lower intraocular pressure by 1.5 mmHg. An increase of just 1 mmHg would increase the risk of eye damage by 10 percent.

The researchers note that the direct relationship between glaucoma and physical activity needs more research before clinical guidelines can be formulated on the findings. Until then, experts advise all patients to exercise, as this is good for both general health and eyesight.

CAN GLAUCOMA BE PREVENTED OR TREATED WITH DIET?

Some research indicates that a low-carbohydrate diet may be linked to a lower risk of developing glaucoma. The research, conducted by scientists at Harvard University and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital (New York), found that a diet low in carbohydrates and high in fat and protein causes changes in the eyes that can prevent disease, even in people at high risk for hereditary reasons. However, the researchers found that diet does not stop the progression of glaucoma if it has already started to develop.

Study author Louis R. Pasquale, MD, vice president of ophthalmology research at Mount Sinai, noted that a diet low in carbohydrates and high in fat and protein could reduce the risk of developing the most common type of glaucoma by 20 percent. (Open-angle glaucoma). The diet is probably more effective in people with a genetic predisposition, according to research.

Drawing on the medical literature on glaucoma, Dr. Andrew Weil, a professor at the University of Arizona and an expert in integrative medicine, recommends the following preventive measures:

  • Take a brisk walk daily or do an exercise program to improve general circulation.
  • Take a vitamin C or antioxidant supplement.
  • Cut down on caffeine.
  • Stop smoking, as this habit is a risk factor.

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