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07th April 2016

Diets rich in vitamin C – More than just for the common cold?

As we age our eyesight deteriorates. Of people aged 75 and over, one in five are living with sight loss, and this is a problem that will continue to increase as the population ages. Care home residents suffer from high rates of poor eyesight with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) estimating that as many as over half of residents in care homes have some form of sight loss.

Poor eyesight can have significant repercussions for health and quality of life for residents, a knock on effect for other aspects of health and quality of life. As well as potential complications from the eye condition itself, it can increase the risks of falls and contribute to depression and isolation.

Age related cataracts

Cataracts are common and a major cause of impaired vision worldwide. Cataracts occur when changes in the lens of the eye cause it to become less transparent. This results in cloudy or misty vision. Apart from age other factors associated are smoking and alcohol and …….a poor diet lacking in vitamins.

A new study published in the journal Ophthalmology suggests eating a diet rich in vitamin C may be able to delay onset of cataracts and keep them from worsening.

The association of dietary vitamin C with cataracts is particularly interesting because there is significant concentration if vitamin C is present in the fluid that surrounds the lens, and it is thought that it may act in an antioxidative capacity to protect the lens from becoming cloudy. Could it be that increased intake of vitamin C in our diets could be protective by increasing the vitamin C available for this fluid?

The study looked at images of the eye lens in over 1000 pairs of female twins, average age 62 years, along with vitamin C intake as measured by food frequency questionnaires. The researchers also looked at progression of cataracts in the eyes of 300 pairs of the twins over a 10 year period. They found that participants with the highest amount of vitamin C in their diet had around a third lower risk of cataracts, and had clearer (less cloudy) lenses after 10 years compared with those who had consumed less vitamin C as part of their diet.

Two thirds of risk attributed to factors like lifestyle and diet

The authors suggest that a person’s genetics account for around 35% of the risk of cataract progression, while environmental factors including diet may account for the other 65%. We cannot help getting older, but a healthy diet and lifestyle may be important. For example diabetes is a risk factor for cataracts and healthy diets are important in reducing risk of type 2 diabetes.

This type of study is observational and cannot show a cause and effect between vitamin C and cataracts; there may be other factors that are confounding the relationship. But we know that vitamin C has a number of health benefits. It contributes, for example, to normal nervous, immune and psychological function, and increasingly its contribution to the protection of cells from oxidative stress is being recognised.

So ensuring adequate vitamin C intake is important. Good sources are a small glass of orange juice, berries, peppers, green veg – even the humble potato contributes vitamin C to the UK diet.

*All information is correct at the time of publishing

Ayela Spiro

Nutrition Scientist, British Nutrition Foundation

Ayela is a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, where her role involves providing expert advice on nutrition and health issues to a number of key audiences including consumers, health professionals, charities, the media and the food industry. At the heart of her work is the communication of nutrition science that promotes understanding of nutrition and health and contributes to the improved wellbeing of all. Read more

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