When our vision starts to become blurry, it’s natural to assume that glasses or contact lenses will solve the problem. If the blurriness is caused by cataracts, new glasses may help for a while. But ultimately, the only cure for cataracts is surgery. In fact, by age 80, more than half of all American either have cataracts or have had cataract surgery.
Inside the eye is a lens much like the lens in a camera. The lens acts to focus light onto the retina at the back of the eye. It also adjusts the eye’s focus so we can see things clearly at a distance and up close. This lens is made up mainly of water and protein. As we age, the protein in the eye may start to clump together, creating the cloudy area we call a cataract.
Trying to look through a cataract is like looking through a dirty windshield on the car. You can see, but object are not as clear as they should be. The more cloudy the lens becomes, the harder it is too see. Early in this process, a stronger glasses prescription may help. But over time, the lens becomes too cloudy for a new prescription to make a difference. Often, the lens also takes on a yellowish tinge which can make colors look washed out. While cataracts may develop in both eyes, having a cataract in one eye does not necessarily mean both eyes will be affected.
Types of Cataracts
Cataracts are typically considered to be part of the aging process. But it is also possible to develop cataracts for other reasons:
• Secondary cataracts – these may form after surgery for other eye conditions, or as a result of other health problems including diabetes.
• Traumatic cataracts – cataracts may form as a result of an eye injury, even years after the injury happened.
• Congenital cataracts – some babies are born with cataracts, often in both eyes. Other children may develop cataracts early in life.
• Radiation cataracts – exposure to certain types of radiation may cause cataracts to develop.
Symptoms of Cataracts
Your eye care professional will check for signs of cataracts during your regular eye exams. You can also watch for these common symptoms that may mean you are getting cataracts:
• Cloudy or blurry vision
• Colors don’t seem as bright as they should be
• Glare or halos around headlights, lamps, or sunlight
• Poor vision at night
• Double vision or multiple images in one eye
• Frequent changes to your prescription for glasses or contacts.
Treatment for Cataracts
The only true cure for cataracts is surgery to replace the cloudy lens with a new, clear lens. More than 3 million Americans have cataract surgery each year, making it the most frequently performed type of surgery in the US. Cataract surgery is typically very successful, with nine out of 10 people regaining very good vision, between 20/20 and 20/40.
During surgery, the surgeon will first remove the cloudy lens. In most cases, a clear, plastic intraocular lens (IOL) is inserted into the eye to replace the lens that is removed. New types of IOLs are being developed that potentially will allow patients to see at all distances, not just one. Other new IOLs block both ultraviolet and blue light, which are believed to cause damage to the retina of the eye.
In many cases, if you needed glasses prior to surgery, you will still need to wear glasses after the cataract is removed, but your prescription will probably need to be updated. If you have cataracts in both eyes, your surgeon will most likely do surgery on one eye and allow it to heal before performing surgery on the second eye.
Studies show that ultraviolet light may contribute to the development of cataracts. Eye care professionals recommend wearing sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat to protect your eyes. Some also believe a diet high in antioxidants such as beta-carotene (vitamin A), selenium and vitamins C and E may reduce cataract development, while a eating a lot of salt may increase your risk.