A cataract forms on the natural lens of the eye when its proteins begin to clump together and create a cloudy area on the lens. The lens of the eye is responsible for focusing light on the retina in the back of the eye. Over time the cataract may grow larger, denser, and cloud more of the lens, making it difficult to see. Most cataracts form gradually, are painless, and usually begin to be noticed after age 55. Vision loss happens slowly and may never become severe. Most people adopt a watch and wait approach, and decide to seek treatment or cataract eye exam only when the cataract begins to interfere with their normal daily activities.
Cataracts may be present at birth (congenital cataracts) or appear as the result of an injury (traumatic cataracts). Some diseases, such as diabetes, and the long-term use of certain medications, such as steroids, can also cause cataracts to appear. Another rare type of cataract can lead to glaucoma.
Although rare, cataracts in children are often serious. If left untreated, the cataract may prevent the child’s sight from developing properly and the child will not be able to see well with that eye, even after the cataract is removed. Certain infections in a mother during pregnancy, such as rubella or chickenpox, can cause the baby to develop a cataract before birth.
What causes cataracts?
Studies are underway to determine the cause of cataracts. Some of the suspected causes include:
- Family history of cataracts
- Eye Injury
- Overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, such as from sunlight, tanning booths, or sunlamps
- Eye diseases, such as glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa, retinal detachment, or long-term uveitis
- Diabetes, especially when the blood sugar levels are above the safe range
- Long-term usage of steroids, diuretics and major tranquilizers
- High salt intake
- Air pollution
- Exposure to radiation (frequent X-rays)
- Heavy alcohol consumption
As a cataract grows, you may begin to notice the following symptoms:
- Blurred or foggy vision
- Double vision
- Enhanced glare, especially at night
- Colors begin to appear faded
Initial treatment usually includes trying new, prescription glasses, stronger bifocals, and more light when reading. As these measures begin to fail to provide assistance, surgery is often the next treatment option suggested.
Cataract surgery is very successful in restoring vision and complications are quite rare. This makes it a good choice for someone who is having trouble driving or reading due to a cataract. Most surgeries last only 10 minutes, although you will probably spend at least 90 minutes at the surgery center due to pre and post-op activities. As a general rule, surgery is only performed on one eye at a time.
During cataract surgery, your clouded lens will be removed and replaced with a special clear, plastic intraocular lens (IOL). You may have the option of replacing your lens with a Presbyopia-correcting IOL, which both improves your distance vision and decreases your reliance on reading glasses. There are different types of Presbyopic-correcting lenses to choose from depending on your specific needs. Your eye doctor can help you make this decision.
Lifestyle habits that appear to forestall the development of cataracts include:
- Low-salt diet
- Diet high in antioxidants such as beta-carotene (vitamin A), selenium, vitamins C and E
- Don’t smoke
- Wear a hat or sunglasses when in the sun
- Avoid sunlamps or tanning booths
- Keep diabetes under control