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New research about cataract formation could help delay onset

New research about cataract development could lead to progress in pharmaceuticals and dietary approaches designed to delay cataract onset.

A team of scientists at Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (USDA HNRCA) at Tufts University found that a communication breakdown might be responsible for causing cataracts.

Cataracts develop with an accumulation of abnormal proteins, which are normally removed by the ubiquitin and lysosomal pathways. However, researchers noticed that when the ubiquitin pathway falters, calcium flows into the cells of the lens, activating a third pathway. This third pathway, the calpain pathway, is what causes cataract-related damage.

This new knowledge could affect both therapeutic and dietary approaches to delaying cataract onset.

Kimberly Reed, O.D., associate professor at the Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry, notes that the link between a proper diet and later onset of cataracts is nothing new.

“We have plenty of observational evidence that a proper diet rich in antioxidants, either through diet or supplements, is associated with a later onset of cataract, particularly nuclear sclerosis,” Dr. Reed says. “This research may help to bridge the gap in our understanding about why that seems to be the case.”

Optometrists play a role in cataract preventionMost cataracts are related to aging. The National Eye Institute states, “By age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery.” Cataracts also can be treated with a relatively simple surgical procedure.

This new information—and any new dietary guidelines or new drugs that result from it—could potentially reduce the need for surgery in some cases, which would have a significant impact on patient lives and public health.

“Even though cataracts aren’t considered to be as serious as other incurable aging eye diseases, like some types of macular degeneration or glaucoma, they are still a significant source of visual dysfunction in the elderly population,” says Dr. Reed.

“Many people don’t have immediate access to eye care, and others may delay having their cataracts removed due to a lack of a support system during and after the surgery, or for cultural or other reasons. So, delaying the onset of cataracts could have a significant public health impact,” she adds.

Dr. Reed believes optometrists can play a role in prevention—particularly before patients age—as more research is conducted about how cataracts form.

“It’s not too early to talk about the link between lifestyle, nutrition, and health status to patients in their early teen years, because very rarely is an aging disease the result of something that began in the patient’s later years,” Dr. Reed says. “Rather, it is a lifetime accumulation of habits, foods and other influences that shape our health status as we get older.”

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