Weight and See


Don’t like what you see in the mirror? Keep packing on the pounds and you may be putting more than your pride in peril. Obesity is an independent risk factor for eye diseases that cause blindness.

If obesity is epidemic then so are the compelling reasons for losing weight. 

To the growing list of health problems associated with being fat—increased risk for heart disease, cancer, inflammatory ailments, diabetes—you can now add a troubling threat to your eyesight. 

After reviewing a number of international epidemiological studies involving thousands of participants over many years of follow-up, researchers from the Goldschleger Eye Institute at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel have concluded that a link exists between being overweight and developing eye diseases that cause blindness. 

There are four major serious eye diseases causing the vast majority of blindness in the world. Glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cataract and diabetic retinopathy are not only more prevalent among the obese, but they also tend to advance faster. 

“Obesity is a stand-alone, independent risk factor for all four diseases. Most studies, which examined the subject found that the higher the weight the higher risk. We don’t know the precise mechanism of why excessive body weight leads to these diseases. However, obesity engenders a wide range of metabolic and blood-vessel disturbances and thus increases the risk for these eye and many other serious diseases,” says Dr. Michael Belkin, professor of ophthalmology at Tel Aviv University, who collaborated on the study with Dr. Zohar Habot-Wilner. 

According to Dr. Belkin, the peril caused by obesity is also independent of other risk factors such as smoking and genetics—the latter manifested by the presence of the disease in family members. 

Eye Sore: 

What happens when being too fat targets your vision:

  • AMD: Degeneration of the retina, the most essential eye tissue, which turns light energy to sensations. Until a few years ago considered incurable, now there is therapy to slow the course—it’s still considered the main cause of blindness and low vision. “In studies which included following 30,000 people for up to 15 years, it was found that the chances of obese people to develop AMD is about twice as high as others,” confirms Dr. Belkin. “The progression of the disease was significantly faster.”
  • Glaucoma: Causes decline of the nerve connecting the eye and the brain, commonly associated with high pressure in the eyes. Incurable but can be arrested in many cases by life-long therapy of eye drops or surgery. Says Dr. Belkin: “It was proven that fatter individuals have higher eye pressure and thus their disease and its vision-lowering consequences are accelerated as compared to other people.”
  • Cataract: Clouding of the natural lens—occurs in almost everyone who lives long enough and is curable surgically. “Obese people are over twice more likely to have cataract at a given age than their normal weight counterparts,” reports Dr. Belkin.
  • Diabetic retinopathy: Occurs in almost all cases of diabetes and is not curable but its development can be stopped or decelerated in many cases by tight control of the disease and through laser surgery. The obese are twice as likely to be at risk according to some studies.

Even if you’re not overweight it’s imperative to make eye care a part of your overall commitment to good health. The US government has recently launched a new health education campaign directed at baby boomers and designed to make people aware of the importance of prevention and early detection by having regular annual eye examinations and vision screenings. 

“I used to be obese,” says Dr. Belkin, “but after the scientific evidence about the association of obesity with diabetes, heart and vascular disease became impossible to ignore some 10 years ago, I lost about 20 kg or 44 lbs and kept them off. As the textbook says—all the signs of beginning diseases such as diabetes disappeared completely.”