Cataracts and Body Size: Researchers Find a Connection

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CATARACTS have been linked to a number of factors, including age, diet, and sun exposure. Now researchers at Harvard are saying that being tall, heavy, or carrying extra fat around the middle may also increase a person's risk for developing them.

The scientists made the finding after combing through the health records of 17,150 male doctors who participated in a research study from 1982 to 1997. The doctors who were overweight had a 20 percent higher risk for cataracts than those who were healthy weight; obese men had a 40 percent increased risk over that of healthy-weight men. Those men who carried their weight around the middle had a higher cataract risk, too: 31 percent more for the thickest waistlines versus the thinnest. And those men who were 6 feet or taller had a 23 percent higher cataract risk compared to men who were 5 feet 7 inches or shorter.

How could a person's weight be tied to cataracts? Obese people are more likely to develop gout, an arthritic condition that has been linked to cataract risk. They're also predisposed to developing diabetes, which hastens cataract formation. As for the height-cataract connection, it may simply be the result of a genetic predisposition to be both taller and develop cataracts.

In terms of the role of abdominal fat, it appears that excess fat around the middle can alter the body's metabolism in a way that eventually affects proteins in the lens of the eye.

The study didn't track the physicians' intake of lutein and zeaxanthin, two compounds in fruits and vegetables that have been shown in some studies to decrease cataract risk. But it could be that the overweight men--who ate fewer daily servings of fruits and vegetables overall--may have had diets lower in those or other risk-reducing nutrients, such as vitamin C.

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