Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in the United States. Many think of cataracts as an issue arising only in our senior years with more than 24 million Americans over the age of 40 being affected. However, although it is rare, approximately three out of every 10,000 children have “pediatric cataracts”.
Most cataracts develop slowly and do not affect your vision early on. Over time, without proper treatment, it can seem like you are viewing the world through frosted glass or a foggy window.
The good news is that there are things that we can do to help prevent the early onset of cataracts and there are procedures that can be done via outpatient surgery to reverse some of the effects.
What is a Cataract?
A cataract occurs when the lens in the eye clouds over due to protein buildup in the body. Your eye acts much like a camera. It lets light in through the lens and then focuses it back through the eye onto the retina, the light-sensitive membrane in the eye that acts like the film. As we age, the lens can thicken, become less flexible, and proteins and fibers within the lens break down and clump together forming cloudy areas. When the lens is clouded over, the picture quality is poor. This leads to reduced vision and loss of sight if left untreated.
There are three primary types of cataracts:
- nuclear sclerotic
- posterior subcapsular
Nuclear Sclerotic: This is the most common type of cataract and affects the center of the lens. It starts with a gradual hardening and yellowing of the middle area of the lens called the nucleus which can take years. Eventually, this will expand to other areas of the lens. It changes the eye’s ability to focus close up and can even, temporarily, improve the ability to see things close up.
Cortical Cataracts: This creates a shell layer over the cortex of the lens that produces “spokes” that radiate out from the center. It mainly affects the edges of the lens. The areas between the spokes let light through which creates blurred vision, glare, and issues with depth perception. People with diabetes are most at risk of developing this type of cataract.
Posterior Subcapsular Cataracts: This type of cataract creates a small opaque or cloudy area on the posterior (back surface) of the lens. It forms beneath a small sac or membrane that encloses the lens and holds it in place. These cataracts can interfere with reading and create halo effects and glare around lights. They often develop quickly within months. Most often they occur in people who use steroids, have diabetes, extreme nearsightedness, and/or retinitis pigmentosa.
Most cataracts develop after the age of forty. Pediatric or congenital cataracts can occur in infants and children caused by genetics, infection, or trauma to the eye.
Who is at Risk for Cataracts?
As mentioned, cataracts most often occur in older adults over the age of 40 with a rate of almost 50% over 80 years of age. Other risk factors, in addition to aging, are:
- Excessive exposure to sunlight
- High blood pressure
- A history of eye injury or inflammation
- A history of eye surgery
- Use of corticosteroid medications over an extended period of time
- Excessive use of alcohol
Can Cataracts be Prevented?
There are no current studies that show that cataracts can be entirely prevented. However, there are things that you can do to slow the progression of cataracts with aging. Here are some suggestions:
- Get regular eye exams. With regular exams, minor changes in your lens can be detected at the earliest stages.
- Wear sunglasses when outside. Be sure to choose sunglasses that block 100 percent UVA and UVB rays for the most protection. Studies show that wearing proper sunglasses starting when young can help reduce the risk of developing cataracts as you age. If you’re not sure which sunglasses to choose, visit a specialty center like Plessen Optical for expert advice.
- Eat a healthy diet including plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Colorful fruits and veggies contain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that can help to maintain good eye health.
- Manage your diabetes or other health conditions. Consult with your physician for a proper treatment plan.
- Stop smoking.
- Reduce your alcohol intake.
Symptoms of Cataracts
Initially, the cloudy cataract may be small and only affects a portion of your eye. In this case, you may still see fine. You should consult with a doctor for an eye exam if you experience any of the following:
- Cloudy, blurry, or darkened vision
- Increasingly difficult night vision
- Increased sensitivity to light and glare
- Need for bright light for reading and other activities
- Noticing “halos” around lights
- Frequent changes in eyeglasses or contact lens prescription
- Noticing that colors appear faded or yellowed
- Double vision in only one eye
Treatment for Cataracts
If the corrective lenses in your glasses are no longer clearing your vision, your doctor may suggest eye surgery. An outpatient surgical, cataract surgery typically involves removing the clouded lens and replacing it with an artificial, clear, and permanent lens. Most often surgery involves a local anesthetic while the patient remains away. At an Ambulatory Surgical Center like Plessen ASC, most patients are in and out within just a couple of hours. Patients may experience some discomfort for a few days but generally, heal fully within a few weeks.
As with any health issue, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and wearing protective sunglasses when outdoors can help to maintain healthy eyesight as you get older.