2006 Science, Technology and Environment

Stuart Richer and the LAST Team

Has clinically proven the benefits of nutritional supplements to prevent and even cure age-related vision loss.

Eat your spinach. Most kids probably heard that a million times when they were growing up. Well, new research suggests that it’s payback time. Rather than parents telling children they need to eat their spinach, children should be saying this same thing to their parents and grandparents. Why? According to the aforementioned research, spinach contains a nutrient called lutein that can not only help prevent, but can actually reverse age-related vision loss, a discovery that could have a dramatic impact on the lives of millions of Americans.

Most people would assume that a finding of this magnitude must have been uncovered by the National Institutes of Health or one of the country’s leading universities. Most people would be wrong. This discovery was made, not at one of the nation’s most famous research facilities, but at the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) hospital in North Chicago by Dr. Stuart Richer and his team of eye and health specialists.

Age-related macular degeneration (ARMD) is the most common cause of blindness among U.S. adults, accounting for 45 percent of all visual disability in the United States. There are 17 million Americans today with ARMD, and by 2050, it is expected that 55 million Americans will be affected. It actually makes sense that a breakthrough in treating ARMD would happen at a VA hospital since ARMD is the number one cause of disability among U.S. veterans.

Dr. Richer and his team at the VA medical center in North Chicago have worked 15 years on ways to treat and cure ARMD. This team of eye specialists and health care providers has conducted three clinical trials that have gained international recognition and broken new ground in this field, with minimal cost to the U.S. government.

The first study in 1996 demonstrated that patients taking a broad spectrum of antioxidant multivitamin capsules without lutein tended to stabilize vision loss and help people maintain their vision. None of the subjects in this sample of 90 veterans saw their vision improved. In 2001, this research was in part validated by the National Eye Institute NIH Age Related Eye Disease study, demonstrating high dose antioxidants protect against developing advanced ARMD.

In 1999, Dr. Richer’s team published a protocol for measuring visual change in veterans with ARMD. They evaluated the effect of spinach consumption on multiple clinical vision tests and found progressive improvement in contrast sensitivity, glare recovery and distortions of central vision.

The team made its biggest breakthrough in 2004, when it released the findings of its third study, the Lutein Antioxidant Supplementation Trial (LAST). This trial demonstrated, for the first time, that the nutrient lutein, commonly found in spinach, may actually reverse symptoms of macular degeneration. This revolutionary concept that vision loss can be reversed is now being evaluated by the National Eye Institute, which is using lutein and a related carotenoid as the basis for a large scale clinical trial involving thousands of patients.

This discovery has the potential to be life-altering for millions of Americans. As Dr. Richer said, “One of my patients said that he could read the newspaper again after four months of treatment.” To have that kind of positive impact on one person’s life is quite an achievement. The impact of possibly doing the same for millions is immeasurable.