For years, cigarette packets have displayed ominous illustrations of black lungs, rotten teeth and other equally disturbing images on their labels as a way to warn consumers about the health risks associated with smoking. And while today it is common knowledge that smoking causes respiratory illnesses like emphysema and lung cancer; it seems society is somewhat under informed about the disturbing link between smoking and macular degeneration.
It’s no longer speculation. Numerous studies have proven that smoking causes circulatory disorder of the vessels and deprives the eyes of oxygen. Not surprisingly, this lack of oxygen eventually leads to cell death in the retina and can ultimately induce macular degeneration.
Perhaps even more alarmingly, Cambridge University researchers recently discovered that merely being exposed to secondhand smoke can produce similar changes. Their findings concluded that those who live with a smoker for five or more years double their risk of the degenerative disease. 1
It’s true; smoking is the single most controllable risk factor that contributes to the development (or progression) of macular degeneration. However, be forewarned; decreased circulation is not the only harmful effect that smoking can have on eye health. In fact, smoking leads to higher AMD risk through several different pathways. The following are additional ways in which nicotine addiction can enhance macular degeneration risk and adversely influence eye sight:
Enhances free radical generation: Everybody produces free radicals on a daily basis. However, said free radicals are unstable and they can wreak major havoc on our bodies. They cause cellular damage; and smoking actually enhances their production. To make matters worse for your eyes, one place that produces a particularly large amount of free radicals is the macula.
Decreases antioxidant levels: Antioxidants are powerful in protecting our cells from inflammation and AMD. They are able to slow the destructive impact that free radicals can have. Alas, smoking depletes levels of protective antioxidants in the body. Certainly not a good thing, especially considering that smokers already experience enhanced free radical generation.
Reduces macular pigment density: Macular pigment is responsible for protecting the eyes from harmful light and preserving normal vision. (Think of macular pigment density as ‘internal sunglasses’) Tobacco smoke significantly reduces macular pigment density thus allowing more oxidative damage to occur at the retina.
Eye sight is a precious gift and it’s important to remember that any amount of smoking can permanently damage it. In fact, cigarette smoke is so damaging to the eyes that smokers are said to be four times more likely to develop AMD than nonsmokers.
Although damage caused by smoking is often irreparable, it’s never too late to quit. Quitting smoking, supplementing with carotenoids and maintaining a healthy diet can help reduce macular degeneration risk and/or slow its progression.