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Exercise May Play a Role in Preventing Vision Loss

New research suggests that exercise can slow or even prevent the development of macular degeneration and may benefit other common causes of vision loss, such as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy. It’s the first experimental evidence to indicate that exercise can reduce the severity of macular degeneration, a devastating disease that can lead to blindness. Conducted at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, the study found that exercise reduced the harmful overgrowth of blood vessels in the eyes of lab mice by up to 45%. This tangle of blood vessels is a key contributor to macular degeneration and several other eye diseases.

“There has long been a question about whether maintaining a healthy lifestyle can delay or prevent the development of macular degeneration. The way that question has historically been answered has been by taking surveys of people, asking them what they are eating and how much exercise they are performing,” said researcher Bradley Gelfand, PhD, of UVA’s Center for Advanced Vision Science. “That is basically the most sophisticated study that has been done. The problem with that is that people are notoriously bad self-reporters … and that can lead to conclusions that may or may not be true. This [study] offers hard evidence from the lab for the very first time.”

Researchers found that even minimal amounts of exercise were beneficial, and more exercise didn’t necessarily mean more benefit. “Mice … will do a spectrum of exercise. As long as they had a wheel and ran on it, there was a benefit,” Gelfand said. “The benefit that they obtained is saturated at low levels of exercise.”

An initial test comparing mice that voluntarily exercised with those that did not found that exercise reduced the blood vessel overgrowth by 45%. A second test, designed to confirm the findings, found a reduction of 32%. Although the researchers aren’t certain exactly how exercise is preventing the blood vessel overgrowth, they admit that various factors could play a role, including increased blood flow to the eyes.

Gelfand, an assistant professor in UVA’s Department of Ophthalmology, noted that the onset of vision loss is often associated with a decrease in exercise. “It is fairly well known that as people’s eyes and vision deteriorate, their tendency to engage in physical activity also goes down,” he said. “It can be a challenging thing to study in older people. How much of that is once causing the other?”

The researchers plan to further pursue their findings. “The next step is to look at how and why this happens, and to see if we can develop a pill or method that will give you the benefits of exercise without having to exercise,” Gelfand said. “We’re talking about a fairly elderly population [of people with macular degeneration], many of whom may not be capable of conducting the type of exercise regimen that may be required to see some kind of benefit.”

It's never too late in life to start exercising. Even walking can contribute to improved health. Vision preservation is but one benefit of exercise. There are many others.

Author
Ithaca Primary Care

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