Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in the world. There are close to 22.3 million Americans age 40 and older with cataracts, and more than half of all Americans will have them by age 80. June is Cataract Awareness Month, a good time to learn more about this common condition.
A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects vision. Normally, light passes through the clear lens and is focused on the retina. A cataract (or cloudy lens) blocks the passage of light through the eye causing vision to be blurred or distorted.
How do cataracts develop?
The lens lies behind the iris and the pupil. According to the National Eye Institute, it works much like a camera lens. It focuses light onto the retina at the back of the eye, where an image is recorded. The lens also adjusts the eye's focus, letting us see things clearly both up close and far away. The lens is made of mostly water and protein. The protein is arranged in a precise way that keeps the lens clear and lets light pass through it.
But as we age, some of the protein may clump together and start to cloud a small area of the lens. This is a cataract. Over time, the cataract may grow larger and cloud more of the lens, making it harder to see.
When are you most likely to have a cataract?
Most cataracts are related to aging. Cataracts are very common in older people; however, you don't have to be a senior citizen to get a cataract. In fact, people can have an age-related cataract in their 40s and 50s. But during middle age, most cataracts are small and do not affect vision. It is after age 60 that most cataracts steal vision.
What are the symptoms of a cataract?
The most common symptoms of a cataract are:
- Cloudy or blurry vision
- Colors seem faded
- Glare; headlights, lamps, or sunlight may appear too bright; a halo may appear around lights
- Poor night vision
- Double vision or multiple images in one eye (this symptom may clear as the cataract gets larger)
- Frequent prescription changes in your eyeglasses or contact lenses
These symptoms also can be a sign of other eye problems. If you have any of these symptoms, check with your eye care professional.
How is a cataract treated?
The symptoms of early cataract may be improved with new eyeglasses, brighter lighting, anti-glare sunglasses or magnifying lenses. If these measures do not help, surgery is the only effective treatment. Surgery involves removing the cloudy lens and replacing it with an artificial lens.
Last year the ophthalmologists at Lawrence Eye Care Associates began performing laser-assisted cataract surgery at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. Laser-assisted cataract surgery brings customized, image-guided computer precision to the procedure. To learn more visit www.lmh.org/cataracts.
What can you do to protect your vision?
The National Eye Institute says wearing sunglasses and a hat with a brim to block ultraviolet sunlight may help to delay cataracts. If you smoke, stop. Researchers also believe good nutrition can help reduce the risk of age-related cataract. They recommend eating green leafy vegetables, fruit and other foods with antioxidants.
If you are age 60 or older, you should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once every two years. In addition to cataracts, your eye care professional can check for signs of age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma and other vision disorders. Early treatment for many eye diseases may save your sight. Visit nei.nih.gov/health/cataract/ for more information.
— Janice Early is Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Lawrence Memorial Hospital. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.