He was already a well-known painter when he started having eye problems at age 36. He first thought it was due to the cold weather and later the bright sunlight to which he was exposed while serving in the National Guard. Eventually he found that working indoors was more soothing; he loved the dark environment of the theater, and his paintings of the ballet and opera became famous.
“I still have a spot of weakness and trouble in my eyes,” he wrote to a friend in Paris. “It made me lose nearly three-weeks being unable to read or work or go out much, trembling all the time lest I should remain that.”
Within three years, he believed he was going blind. The tell-tale grey spots of macular degeneration were appearing in the central part of his vision. Small and cloudy at first, they gradually increased in size. Painting became difficult. He couldn’t see the colors on his palette, and asked his models to identify them.
By the time he was 57, he could no longer read. “Whereas you in your solitude have the joy of having your eyes…” he wrote to a friend, “Ah! Sight! Sight! Sight!…the difficulty of seeing makes me feel numb.” He abandoned painting with oils and turned to pastels, which he found easier to work with and requiring less precision. As his artistic options diminished, he increasingly turned to sculpture. Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot. Little Dancer.
Today Edgar Degas is regarded as one of the greatest artists of the 19th century, and one of the founders of Impressionism.
Degas’ courage and resourcefulness as he coped with a debilitating disease is inspiring. But today we know so much more about how to prevent and slow the progression of eye diseases such as macular degeneration, and while there is no cure, we do know that eating certain nutrients can stave off or slow the progression of this disease that is the #1 cause of legal blindness in the United States in people over the age of 55.
Baby boomers, here’s something to ponder: in just ten years, there will be six times the number of baby boomers in the U.S. as there were in 1990. You’ll hear a lot more about age-related macular degeneration – which has been in the media of late with news that Roseanne Barr and Judi Dench are afflicted – as it reaches what some fear might become epidemic proportions.
“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” wrote 18th-century French lawyer turned epicure Brillat-Savarin. Nutritionist Adelle Davis picked up the torch in the 1960s and ‘70s in the U.S. with her slogan “you are what you eat,” advocating for unprocessed foods and vitamins on the road to good health. Johanna Seddon – a coal-miner’s daughter from Pittsburgh– was encouraged at an early age by her father to take a holistic approach to nutrition and health. He showed her an early news article concerning a Canadian doctor who was testing vitamin E as a treatment for a specific eye problem. She went on to become the first ophthalmologist with a graduate degree in epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.
At the Harvard School of Public Health, colleagues gently ribbed Dr. Seddon as she researched nutritional studies of macular degeneration and cataracts. They didn’t laugh when in 1994 she reported that specific antioxidant nutrients, along with omega-3 fatty acids, could reduce the risk of macular degeneration. You are indeed what you eat. And what’s good for your eyes is also good for the rest of your body – your eyes, lungs, heart, and circulatory system. While I don’t have macular degeneration (and there’s no history of it in my family), I teamed up with Dr. Seddon to write EAT RIGHT FOR YOUR SIGHT, I was so impressed by the findings.
So, in a nutshell, what should we eat? If nothing else, try these simple steps:
- Eat three colors of vegetables and fruit every day. The nutrients for your eye health come from the pigment in vegetables and fruit – the deep reds of beets, the gorgeous yellow of bell peppers, the eye-popping blue of fresh berries. Mix it up. In the ‘60s we served a meal of meat, starch, and vegetable; the new holy trinity is three colors of fruit and veggies – daily.
- As a rule of thumb, when it comes to eye health, the darker the better. Go for an orange pepper over a yellow one, kale (now there’s a superfood!) over lettuce, blueberries over cantaloupe.
- Get the yolk? The dark yellow marigold of an egg yolk is packed with nutrients you need. Fresh eggs from well-fed hens produce darker yolks than the insipid yolks you’ll find in ‘factory’ eggs from grocery stores. Go for the best, and eat them often. Eggs are loaded with protein, vitamins, and minerals; the yolk also boasts carotenoids, including lutein and zeaxanthin – which are just fancy words for nutrients.
- Sometimes the sum is more than the parts, especially in food, where certain foods help you absorb nutrients more readily. Good food combos include iron and vitamin C (make a spinach salad and add orange segments), vitamin D and calcium (found in fortified milk and canned salmon), and vitamins A, D, E, and K (found when you pair an avocado with grapefruit, salad dressing with greens, or broccoli rabe with pine nuts).
- Look for foods with vitamin C, which fight those free radicals and are powerful antioxidants: red and green peppers, fruit, cauliflower, green cabbage.
- Incorporate vitamin D3 into your diet: fortified milk, mackerel, sardines, egg yolks, beef liver
- Omega 3 fatty acids are important to healthy development of your brain, nerves and eyes: they are found in salmon, sardines, mackerel, flaxseeds, walnuts, squash, tofu
- Deep-colored antioxidants charge directly to your retina: eat blueberries, grapes, pomegranates, cranberries and other dark foods
Other factors contribute to eye health as well. Summer’s almost here – don’t forget your UV sunshades (for yourself and your kids.) Exercise regularly. Don’t smoke. Maintain a normal weight. All these factors can help slow the progression of eye diseases such as macular degeneration.
This Memorial Day weekend, try out this tasty smoothie. After all, we only get one pair of eyes.
This drink sneaks in a lot of bang for the buck—carotenoids from the kale, lutein from the blueberries, vitamin C from the pomegranate juice, and potassium from the bananas, plus fiber.
1 ripe banana
2 kale leaves, stems removed
1 cup blueberries
2 cups pomegranate juice
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
Combine all the ingredients in a blender and purée until smooth, about 45 to 60 seconds.
Chill briefly if desired. Serve immediately.
Recipe from Eat Right For Your Sight: Simple Tasty Recipes That Help Reduce the Risk of Vision Loss from Macular Degeneration by Jennifer Trainer Thompson and Dr. Johanna Seddon. Available wherever books are sold.