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Supplement could help ailing eyesight

People fear going blind almost as much as getting cancer.

One in 10 people older than 65 will go blind, and one in four older than 75 will lose their eyesight.

Loss of sight is so frightening that many people can't imagine going on without their vision.

Older people, most prone to vision-threatening diseases such as age-related macular degeneration, clamor for information on how to prevent, or stop, the progress of eye disease.

At a symposium in West Palm Beach, scientists from the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston detailed developments from stem-cell transplantation to gene therapy to retinal implants.

Most of these studies are long-term, and while significant and encouraging for science, they don't offer much immediate impact.

So it wasn't surprising when the first question asked of the Schepens scientists was regarding vitamins and supplements for vision health.

Dr. Wayne Streilein answered with one word: Ocuvite. It's a vitamin and mineral supplement, sold without a prescription, that was found to slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration, which has no cure. AMD is a gradual, progressive deterioration of the eye that is the leading cause of legal blindness in older Americans.

Produced by Bausch & Lomb, Ocuvite was found effective during a 10-year clinical trial known as the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) by the National Eye Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

A high-dose combination of vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and zinc, Ocuvite is recommended for people who are considered at high risk for advanced AMD, that is, those who have either intermediate AMD in one or both eyes, or advanced AMD in one eye but not the other eye.

According to information released by the NIH in 2001, when the study results were made public, "For those study participants who had either no AMD or early AMD, the nutrients did not provide an apparent benefit."

(The disease can be diagnosed by a doctor through an eye exam.)

The Ocuvite formula is not a cure, nor will it restore sight already lost, but researchers and scientists were excited about its ability to slow the march toward more serious degeneration.

"Previous studies have suggested that people who have diets rich in green, leafy vegetables have a lower risk of developing AMD," said Dr. Frederick Ferris, director of clinical research at the NEI and chairman of the AREDS study, when the results were released.

But, he added, "The high levels of nutrients that were evaluated in the AREDS are very difficult to achieve from diet alone."

A word of caution: Those who think they might benefit from Ocuvite should talk to their doctors because of the high concentration of vitamins and minerals in the pills.

Such a concentration might interact badly with other vitamins or prescription drugs that a person is taking. And self-medication, doctors warn, could do more harm than good.