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The Making of Medicine

Exercise Helps Prevent Vision Loss

Our Bradley Gelfand, PhD, has found what he believes is the first experimental evidence that exercise can slow or prevent macular degeneration, a condition that affects 10 million Americans. The work suggests exercise may benefit other common causes of vision loss, such as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, as well.

Gelfand found that exercise reduced the harmful overgrowth of blood vessels in the eyes of lab mice by up to 45%. This overgrowth is a key contributor to macular degeneration and other eye diseases.

“There has long been a question about whether maintaining a healthy lifestyle can delay or prevent the development of macular degeneration. The way that question has historically been answered has been by taking surveys of people, asking them what they are eating and how much exercise they are performing,” he told me. “That is basically the most sophisticated study that has been done. The problem with that is that people are notoriously bad self-reporters … and that can lead to conclusions that may or not be true. This [study] offers hard evidence from the lab for very first time.”

He isn’t sure exactly how exercise is preventing the harmful overgrowth. It could be a variety of factors. But the good news is that it didn’t take a lot of exercise for the lab mice to see a benefit.“Mice are kind of like people in that they will do a spectrum of exercise. As long as they had a wheel and ran on it, there was a benefit,” Gelfand said. “The benefit that they obtained is saturated at low levels of exercise.”

This is the latest in a string of discoveries we’ve had of late that speak to the benefits of exercise — from helping prevent a deadly COVID-19 complication to profound benefits for a genetic disorder known as Friedreich’s ataxia.

“One reason I wanted to do this study was sort of selfish. I was hoping to find some reason not to exercise,” Professor Gelfand quipped. “It turned out exercise really is good for you.”

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