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Exercise, Wonder Drug that Keeps Giving: Protects Eyes

When I was still living at home my mother used to complain that I thought exercise was the cure for everything. Well, as the years go by and medical science progresses, the more I realize that I was on the right track. Sensible exercise protects us from head to toe. The latest finding is that physical activity helps to keep our eyes young.

Exercise keeps our heart and blood vessels young and healthy, why not our eyes? I recently wrote about a study showing that exercise improves blood flow, by reducing inflammation and increasing flexibility in the lining of our arteries: “Exercise Counters High-Fat Meal,” # 173 in our Diet & Nutrition category. According to researchers at the University of Wisconsin, the same factors are associated with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a disease that destroys sharp, central vision. Few studies, however, have investigated the connection between physical activity and AMD—until now.

The study, published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology (Online First October 31, 2006), traced the incidence of AMD over a 15-year period in 3,874 residents (men and women, ages 43 to 86) of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. They found that an active lifestyle reduced the risk of developing AMD by 70%!

My ophthalmologist says I’m likely to live a long time if the rest of me is as health as the blood vessels and tissues in my eyes. Needless to say, I was interested in the Wisconsin study and learning more about the connection between eye health and physical activity.   

The Beaver Dam residents were examined for AMD status at the start of the study (1988-90) and at 5-year intervals thereafter. Physical activity was assessed based on a questionnaire asking about blocks walked daily, stairs climbed and formal exercise sessions. Those who exercised regularly at least three times a week were compared with people with a sedentary lifestyle.

Twenty five percent (964) of the participants were found to have an active lifestyle; 23% climbed more than 6 flights of stairs each day, and 13% walked more than 12 blocks daily. The active group was also more likely to be younger and healthier in other respects (lower blood pressure, lower white blood count, less obesity). After controlling for age and other lifestyle factors, those in the active category at the start of the study were found to be 70% less likely to develop exudative AMD, the most advanced “wet” form of AMD, compare to the sedentary group.

“Physical activity also reduces systemic inflammation and endothelial [blood vessel lining] dysfunction,” the researchers wrote, “both hypothesized to have a role in the pathogenesis of AMD.” As noted above, those factors are also thought to improve blood flow, improving cardiovascular function.

In the “Discussion” section of the report, the researchers stated this very important point: “AMD is strongly linked to ageing, which is more relevant biologically rather than chronologically. Physically active people are likely to be biologically younger than sedentary people.” (Emphasis added)

In short, exercise makes our bodies younger than our years would indicate, and younger eyes are less likely to develop AMD.

That’s essentially what I was trying to tell my mother. Exercise makes our bodies work better longer. And now I know that includes the eyes. (Mom, are you listening?)

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