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Higher lutein and zeaxanthin levels may help protect against cataract

Higher lutein and zeaxanthin levels may help protect against cataract

Tuesday, March 13, 2012. In an article published in advance of print in the British Journal of Nutrition, Jouni Karppi and Sudhir Kurl at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio and Jari Laukkanen of Lapland Central Hospital in Rovaniemi, Finland report that increased plasma levels of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin are associated with a lower risk of cataract in older men and women. Lutein and zeaxanthin's protective effect against another eye disease--age-related macular degeneration—is well known, however their effects in other eye conditions have been less well explored.

"Reactive oxygen species can damage lens proteins and fiber cell membranes, leading to cataract formation," the authors write. "Lutein and zeaxanthin are the most abundant carotenoids that accumulate in the lens of the eye, where they possibly filter phototoxic blue light and neutralize reactive oxygen species."

The current study included 1,130 men and 559 women who enrolled in the Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study from 1998-2001. Blood plasma samples collected between 2005 and 2008 were analyzed for alpha tocopherol, vitamin A and carotenoids.

From the beginning of the current investigation through 2008, 113 cataracts were diagnosed, including 108 nuclear cataracts (the most common cataract type, believed to be caused in part by free radical damage), resulting in a four year nuclear cataract incidence of 6.4 percent. Among subjects whose lutein levels were among the top one-third of participants, there was a 42 percent lower risk of being diagnosed with nuclear cataract, and for those whose zeaxanthin levels were among the top third, the risk was 41 percent lower compared to subjects whose plasma levels were in the lowest third.

While three cross-sectional studies have found a lower risk of nuclear cataract or their progression in association with higher serum levels or dietary intake of lutein and zeaxanthin, the current study's authors note that a recent FDA review concluded that there was no credible evidence to support a protective effect for lutein or zeaxanthin on cataract risk. However, Dr Karppi and colleagues remark that there are factors that could explain previous inconsistent study results.

"We observed that high concentrations of lutein and zeaxanthin were associated with a reduced risk of nuclear cataract in elderly subjects," they conclude. "There may be other protective factors of the diet (e.g. synergism of carotenoids with vitamin C or other antioxidants) that may partly explain the observed results."

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Grapes may protect against macular degeneration

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An article published online on December 8, 2011 in the journal Free Radical Biology and Medicine shows a protective effect for grapes and lutein against the development of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) in a mouse model of the disease.

In their introduction to the article, Silvia Finnemann, PhD of Fordham University's Department of Biological Sciences and her associates explain that oxidative damage and pro-oxidant lysosomal lipofuscin accumulate in the aging human eye, which causes a decline in function of the retinal pigment epithelium: the support cells for the retina's photoreceptors. The resulting dysfunction and destruction of these cells, in turn, contributes to the development of age-related macular degeneration.

For their study, Dr Finnemann's team administered diets that provided natural antioxidants, grapes or marigold extract containing the macular pigments lutein/zeaxanthin to mice bred to have increased blood vessel formation (which occurs in macular degeneration). While lutein and zeaxanthin proved to be protective to the eye, grapes showed the greatest benefit, with both compounds resulting in reduced lipofuscin accumulation and age related rod and cone photoreceptor dysfunction, prevention of blindness, and other positive outcomes. The antioxidant properties of compounds that occur in grapes are believed to be the protective mechanism observed in the current research.

"The protective effect of the grapes in this study was remarkable, offering a benefit for vision at old age even if grapes were consumed only at young age," Dr Finnemann stated. "A lifelong diet enriched in natural antioxidants, such as those in grapes, appears to be directly beneficial for retinal pigment epithelium, and retinal health and function."

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