Free radicals, antioxidants and eye diseases: evidence from epidemiological studies on cataract and age-related macular degeneration

Ophthalmic Res. 2010;44(3):191-8. doi: 10.1159/000316476. Epub 2010 Sep 9.


Cataract and age-related macular degeneration (AMD) are the major causes of vision impairment and blindness worldwide. Both conditions are strongly age related with earlier signs (usually asymptomatic) occurring in middle age and becoming severer and more prevalent with increasing age. The aetiology of these conditions is thought to fit with the 'free radical theory' of ageing which postulates that ageing and age-related diseases result from the accumulation of cellular damage from reactive oxygen species (ROS). Mitochondrial energy production is a major source of endogenous ROS. External sources of ROS include environmental sources especially solar radiation, biomass fuels and tobacco smoking. There is strong evidence from epidemiological studies that smoking is a risk factor for both cataract and AMD. There is moderate evidence for an association with sunlight and cataract but weak evidence for sunlight and AMD. The few studies that have investigated this suggest an adverse effect of biomass fuels on cataract risk. The antioxidant defence system of the lens and retina include antioxidant vitamins C and E and the carotenoids lutein and zinc, and there is mixed evidence on their associations with cataract and AMD from epidemiological studies. Most epidemiological studies have been conducted in well-nourished western populations but evidence is now emerging from other populations with different dietary patterns and antioxidant levels.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antioxidants / physiology*
  • Cataract / epidemiology*
  • Eye Diseases / etiology
  • Eye Diseases / prevention & control*
  • Free Radicals / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Macular Degeneration / epidemiology*
  • Reactive Oxygen Species


  • Antioxidants
  • Free Radicals
  • Reactive Oxygen Species