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FINDINGS OF FACT
Eyeballing Lutein Supplements

From the Washington Post
July 31, 2001


The Claim. Lutein may stave off age-related vision decline and prevent cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a disease of the retina that is a leading cause of blindness.

The Background. Lutein is a yellow pigment found in egg yolks and leafy green vegetables, part of the carotenoid family, which includes beta carotene. Lutein also lines the retina.

The Theory. Lutein's antioxidant properties may mop up free radicals, chemicals thought to damage the retina and the eye's lens over time. Also, lutein may act as a natural eyeshade, protecting the retina from too much light. (Excessive exposure to light is thought to be related to macular dengeneration.) Replenishing lutein in the eye may enhance protection.

The Problem. Research on eyes and nutrition "has had a long and gory history and very little to show for it," says ophthalmologist Scott Brodie of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "The case for lutein has not been made." Many studies have found that only about half the patients who take lutein supplements increase the amount of lutein in their eyes, where they would presumably need it -- and even then the increase has not been shown to improve or sustain vision, Brodie says.

The Hope. At least two small, industry-funded studies and anecdotal evidence support the claim of lutein's possible benefits for eye health. Ophthalmologist Robert Abell in Wilmington, Del., says lutein supplements help his AMD patients maintain or sometimes improve their vision.

Bottom Line. Claims that lutein supplementation protects or enhances vision are not supported by solid scientific evidence; they are based largely on theory, clinical observations and studies of those whose diet is rich in lutein-rich foods. The National Eye Institute (NEI) does not recommend lutein supplements, but there is no evidence they are harmful in the quantities recommended by most marketers. A yearly eye exam for diabetics and those over age 60 is crucial for identifying and treating most eye diseases, including cataracts, AMD and glaucoma. Those who are hopeful or superstitious and concerned with eye health may wish to include lutein-rich foods, such as spinach, kale and collard greens, in their diets.

What's Next. The NEI is conducting a pilot study to determine how well lutein supplements are absorbed in the blood, a steppingstone to a planned major study on lutein and vision.

-- Christopher Wanjek

© 2001 The Washington Post Company



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Date last modified August 5, 2001