Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide. Here’s what you should know for Cataract Awareness Month.
By the age of 80, more than half of all Americans will have cataracts or will have undergone cataract surgery. In fact, there are currently over 25.7 million Americans above the age of 40 with cataracts. From these numbers you can probably infer two things: that cataracts are incredibly common, and that they are treatable.
Cataracts form when clumps of protein build up within the lens of the eye, blocking light from entering and causing the lens to turn cloudy or become discolored. Cataracts can develop slowly over many years, or they can happen quickly. Often a person with cataracts does not notice them until they are very severe. Cataracts may be treated with glasses, medication, or surgery. It is important to speak with your eye doctor as soon as you notice symptoms.
Symptoms that you may be developing cataracts include:
- Blurred or cloudy vision.
- Poor night vision.
- Double vision.
- Faded colors.
- Light sensitivity.
- Halo effect around lights.
- Frequent prescription changes.
Given how common cataracts are, it is likely you already know someone who has cataracts or has gone through cataract surgery. Whether you think you may be developing cataracts, or you want to know what to expect from cataracts in the future, or even if you want to help someone with cataracts to better understand their condition, here are the key details to know.
1. Cataracts are associated with aging, but stem from many causes.
While many people develop cataracts as they get older, there is a genetic link. This means that you are more likely to develop cataracts if someone in your family also has cataracts. Lifestyle factors such as smoking and high alcohol intake are also related to cataracts, as are health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and long-term use of steroid or statin medications. Finally, physical damage caused by excessive UV exposure, eye inflammation, and eye injury can also lead to cataracts.
2. You can take steps to lower your risk of cataracts.
For those who have a family history of cataracts, lifestyle changes can mitigate your risk. Quitting smoking, moderating alcohol, getting a healthy amount of exercise, and eating a healthy diet can all help.
Foods that promote eye health include those rich in:
- Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids: cold water fish.
- Selenium: whole grains.
- Vitamin A: sweet potatoes and carrots.
- Vitamin C: citrus, strawberries, and tomatoes.
- Vitamin E: avocados, nuts, and seeds.
- Zinc: beans and black-eyed peas.
You should also wear sun protection from strong UV rays, which can damage your eyes in more ways than one.
3. There are several kinds of cataracts.
Age-related cataracts are by far the most common. However, they are not the only way cataracts form. Other types of cataracts include:
- Congenital cataracts. These appear at birth and may be genetic or caused by complications in the womb. It is estimated that 8–30% of congenital cataracts carry a genetic component.
- Traumatic cataracts. Damage to the eye caused by a blow, a cut, a puncture wound, heat, or chemicals can cause cataracts to form as the wound heals.
- Secondary cataracts. These are side-effects of other treatments, such as medicines, or can be caused by conditions such as diabetes or an eye infection.
4. Cataract surgery is quick, painless, and safe.
While cataracts can be initially treated with medication or an updated prescription, as they worsen they may require surgery. This is especially important if there is reason to believe that the cataracts are blocking treatment for another condition, such as age-related macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy. Cataracts should also be removed when they are causing severe vision impairment, as they lower the patient’s quality of life and can lead to accidents within the home. That said, patients do not usually need to rush the decision to have surgery, as the operation is not usually urgent.
Cataract surgery typically takes twenty to thirty minutes and does not require the patient to be put to sleep, although it will require an anesthetic. During surgery, the doctor will remove the cloudy lens of the eye and replace it with an artificial lens. After the surgery the eye may feel itchy or uncomfortable for a few days. The patient should avoid touching it unless absolutely necessary, and even then only after washing their hands. The patient should also avoid swimming or energetic activity. The patient may be given a protective covering over the eye, or asked to use eye drops to prevent infection. The eye should be healed within eight weeks.
5. Cataract surgery places you at slightly higher risk for retinal displacement.
Cataract surgery is safe in over 90% of cases, with vision sometimes restored enough that the patient no longer requires glasses or needs them only for distances or for reading. However, the patient does have a slightly higher chance of retinal displacement and should be aware of the signs.
A symptom of retinal displacement is the sudden appearance of flashes or floaters in the eye. You may have noticed floaters as the faint specks or cobwebs that seem to appear in your vision when you look up at a clear blue sky. Retinal detachment does not cause any pain, but it is a medical emergency that can lead to permanent loss of vision. If you notice a sudden increase in floaters, go to an emergency service or a hospital right away and have a physician look at your eye.
Speak to your eye doctor about comprehensive eye dilation if you are at risk of cataracts.
Annual eye exams are recommended as part of everyone’s routine medical care. Many eye conditions can develop which can be prevented with early detection, and doctors can diagnose other potentially dangerous conditions through the eyes that would benefit from immediate attention. If you are over 60 years old, it is recommended that every other year your eye exam should be more comprehensive, including an eye dilation, visual acuity test, and a tonometry test. These additional procedures will help detect cataracts as well as the early warning signs of glaucoma. Your doctor will then be able to offer guidance on the best path forward.