Cataracts: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments
Cataracts are when the lens in the eye develops cloudy patches that eventually affect the person’s vision. As this is a degenerative condition, it is very common in seniors. You may wonder, what causes cataracts?
A study done in the U.S. showed that 15% of people in their early 60s had cataracts. By the time they reached their 80s, more than half of the elderly either had cataracts or already had cataract surgery.
This article explains what cataracts are and the symptoms you should look out for. The possible causes, risk factors, and treatments are also discussed. Finally, we look at the important steps you can take right away to help prevent or slow down the development of cataracts.
What Are Cataracts?
Behind the pupil of your eye is a lens, similar to that of a camera. The lens focuses the image you are seeing on the back of the eye.
The most common cataracts are caused by the normal aging process. From around age 40, proteins within the lens begin to clump together. This gradually causes cloudy areas in the lens, which usually do not affect vision until many years later.
There are other, rarer, types of cataracts that can develop more rapidly, such as those in people with diabetes.
Cataracts do not necessarily develop at the same rate in both eyes. They are not normally painful and do not cause any eye irritation.
How Cataracts Affect Vision
Once cataracts affect a fairly large area of the lens, vision becomes blurry. Most people in their 60s have some blurred vision, even if it is barely noticeable.
As the condition progresses, colors can become less bright. You may have difficulty seeing at night and your eyes can become extra sensitive to light. You could also experience double vision or see halos around lights.
Book an eye exam with your optometrist if you have any of these symptoms. If they discover that you may have advanced-stage cataracts, you will be referred to ophthalmologist (eye specialist) for further tests and treatment.
What Causes Cataracts?
As already mentioned, cataracts mostly arise as a normal part of aging. But there are other causes that increase the likelihood of developing cataracts.
- Genetic factors, as cataracts are more likely when there is a high incidence of the condition in family members.
- Previous eye injuries or surgery for other eye problems.
- Certain diseases, including diabetes and high blood pressure.
- Radiation therapy, such as for cancer treatment.
- Long term use of certain medications, especially steroids.
Risk Factors for Cataracts
Besides the abovementioned unavoidable causes, there are a number of preventable lifestyle factors that could increase your risk of cataracts, or they might make them develop more rapidly.
Most of these risk factors are connected to the overproduction of oxidants. Oxidation is the underlying cause of aging and the majority of age-related health conditions. It causes damage at cellular level, including to the lens proteins.
Lifestyle risk factors for developing cataracts include:
- Ultraviolet radiation – due to overexposure of your eyes to sunlight, without adequate protection.
- Excessive alcohol use.
- An unhealthy diet and obesity.
Coping With Early-Stage Cataracts
At the early stage of cataracts, when there is some cloudiness and reduced night vision, most people can manage without surgical intervention.
New eyeglasses or contact lenses may improve vision. An annual visit to the optometrist to check for any further visual deterioration is important.
Brighter lights when reading at night, and even a magnifying glass, can help. Avoid or limit driving at night once night vision, glare or haloes become a problem.
Make sure that other health problems, like diabetes and high blood pressure, are well controlled.
Cataract surgery may become necessary when visual deterioration starts to affect regular daily activities. You may find that you are no longer able to read or drive, even during the day.
The treatment starts with a visit to an ophthalmologist who will perform a comprehensive eye examination. For this procedure, eye drops are inserted to dilate the pupil so that all the structures of the eye can be viewed.
The ophthalmologist can then advise whether you will benefit by cataract surgery. You can discuss any questions you might have, such as what to expect during and after surgery, the benefits, possible complications, and also the costs.
During cataract surgery the cloudy lens is removed and replaced with an artificial lens, known as an intraocular lens. The surgery is often done under local anesthetic — the patient stays awake and usually goes home on the same day.
Cataract surgery is one of the most commonly performed surgical procedures. It is safe, with a very low rate of complications.
Steps to Prevent or Delay Cataracts
There are steps that everyone can take to reduce their risk of developing cataracts or to delay their progression:
- Protect your eyes in bright sunlight by wearing sunglasses that block a high percentage of UV rays. Also wear a hat with a brim. Even your normal eyeglasses can have a clear, anti-UV coating.
- Eat a healthy diet to ensure that you get the all the antioxidants you need. An analysis of a large number of research studies found that a healthy diet, with the recommended daily amount of fruit and vegetables, may offer the best protection against cataracts. High doses of specific antioxidant supplements did not appear to make much difference.
- Maintain a healthy weight and make sure that diabetes and other health conditions are well controlled
- Quit smoking. There are many resources that can help you with this process once you make up your mind to stop smoking.
Take Care of Your Vision
Cataracts, or a clouding of the lens of the eye, are mainly an age-related condition. Initially, cataracts cause cloudy vision which may be hardly noticeable, but eyesight continues to get worse as the condition progresses.
Worldwide, cataracts are the leading cause of blindness even though surgery is available to replace the damaged lens with an artificial one, and with the aging population, the incidence is bound to increase.
Taking steps to prevent or delay the development of cataracts can make a big difference to your future quality of life.