This popular diet may decrease risk for age-related macular degeneration.

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The Mediterranean diet focuses on lean meat and fish, fresh veggies, and olive oil. Getty Images

A growing body of research suggests that diet plays an important role in one of the leading causes of blindness: macular degeneration.

The development of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is one of the leading causes of vision loss in people over the age of 50. It affects more than 2 million people in the United States.

And that number is expected to grow. Experts think that by 2020, there will be 3 million people affected by the condition.

But there may be a way to reverse some of these numbers through diet.

According to a recent study published in the journal Ophthalmology, following a Mediterranean diet might help reduce the risk for AMD.

The Mediterranean diet pattern is characterized by high consumption of plant-based foods and fish, moderate consumption of wine, and low consumption of meat and dairy products.

The researchers reported that no single food group or isolated component of the diet was linked to reduced risk of AMD.

Rather, it was the entire dietary pattern that seemed to provide protection.

In other words, eating a combination of nutrient-rich foods might have synergistic effects.

“I think this study encourages us to take a broader view of things,” Dr. Sunir Garg, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, told Healthline.

“If you look at any one thing — fruits, vegetables, fish — it wasn’t associated with a benefit,” he continued, “but instead it really seemed to be the whole package.”

The authors of the study looked at data collected through two previous investigations: the Rotterdam Study and the Alienor Study.

The data set included information from more than 4,000 Dutch adults over the age of 55, as well 550 French adults over the age 73.

Over a period of 4 to 21 years, those participants completed multiple food-frequency questionnaires to share information about their eating habits.

Participants who followed a Mediterranean diet pattern were 41 percent less likely to develop late-stage AMD, compared with those who didn’t adhere to this diet pattern.

These results are consistent with past studies, which have found links between nutrient-rich diet patterns and reduced risk of late-stage AMD.

“There have been other studies that have looked at this association and seen a similar relationship,” Amy Millen, PhD, an associate professor of nutritional epidemiology at the University of Buffalo, told Healthline.

While some of those studies have focused on the Mediterranean diet in particular, others have looked at other diet patterns or food groups.

“When they look at other diets that are healthy, they see protective effects too,” Millen said.

In the future, Millen hopes to see more research conducted on the potential role that diet plays in the development of early-stage AMD.

“Most of the work with diet and AMD has focused on the risk for late AMD, but there’s not as much work looking at how diet affects the development of early AMD,” Millen said.

In its early stages, AMD often causes no noticeable symptoms.

But over time, it can cause blurred areas or blank spots to develop near the center of your vision. This can make it hard to see while reading, writing, driving, and doing other activities.

If you get a diagnosis of AMD, your doctor might advise you to supplement your diet with prescribed doses of vitamin C, vitamin E, lutein, zeaxanthin, zinc, and copper. This may help stop the disease from getting worse.

If you have late-stage AMD, your doctor might prescribe injectable medications.

“We have really good treatments that involve putting medicine into the eye with a needle. It sounds horrible, but it prevents vision loss in the majority of folks and can undo damage,” Garg said.

However, he warned there’s only so much doctors can do about this degenerative disease.

“But once you develop more advanced macular degeneration,” Garg said. “No matter what we do, your vision’s not like it used to be.”

That’s why prevention is important, he added.

In addition to eating a nutrient-rich diet, avoiding or quitting smoking may reduce your chances for developing late-stage AMD.

Exercising regularly and maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels may also provide protection.

“It’s never too early or too late to incorporate these habits into our daily routine,” Garg said.

“If we can change the trajectory early for people,” he continued, “it may reduce their chances of developing problems in the future.”