June is Cataract Awareness Month. There are many different types of cataracts, which can arise from many contributing factors: trauma, long term steroid use, high-risk medications and health conditions, such as diabetes. However, the most common cataracts are due to increasing age.
Cataracts are a very common eye condition that becomes even more likely to occur as an individual gets older. People are living longer lives these days, so cataracts are becoming more prevalent.
According to the World Health Organization, cataracts are responsible for 51% of world blindness, affecting about 20 million people. In 2008, the National Eye Institute and Prevent Blindness America said in the United States, nearly 22 million Americans age 40 and older have cataracts. At age 80, more than half of those Americans have cataracts.
Don't let cataracts get this bad. This is a fairly dense cataract.
A cataract is a clouding of the eye’s natural lens. At birth, the lens is crystal clear. As one gets older, the lens becomes cloudier, and visual complaints of decreased vision and glare become more apparent.
Cataracts can be prevented to some degree. The Mayo Clinic suggests having regular eye exams, as directed by your eye doctor, which can help detect cataracts and other eye diseases at their earliest stages. Smoking has been linked to cataract progression. The cessation of smoking, as well as maintaining a healthy weight and eating a healthy diet, can help reduce the risk of cataract progression.
Probably the easiest thing a person can do to help prevent cataracts is to wear UV-blocking sunglasses. UV radiation has been linked to the development of certain types of cataracts, as well as macular degeneration. Wearing sunglasses should start at a young age, because approximately 50% of our lifetime UV exposure will occur before the age of 18.
The progression of a cataract is typically a slow, gradual change. Some patients are very susceptible to changes in their vision. However, many patients don’t realize there is a vision problem until they are evaluated at an eye exam. Most likely, this is because a patient is always using both eyes together, and typically do not notice vision changes if only one eye is getting worse. When the quality of life is affected by poor vision, and that vision cannot be improved by updating the patient’s eyeglasses prescription, then cataract surgery is warranted.
No cataract on the left. Cataract on the right scattering light,
causing glare, light sensitivity and blurred vision.
I have seen patients wait a bit too long for fear of cataract surgery. Their vision progressively gets worse despite recommendations to have the surgery performed. There are risks to any surgery, but the risks of major complications of cataract surgery in the hands of a skilled surgeon are very low.
Some of those risks include increased pressure in the eyes, inflammation, and infection. However, any patient undergoing cataract surgery is monitored closely in the post-operative period by the surgeon or co-managing optometrist, and given anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial eye-drops to facilitate the healing process.
Usually when a patient has surgery in one eye, their first question is, "How soon can I get the other eye done?" When the surgeon removes the cloudy cataract and replaces it with a clear intra-ocular lens, the reported brightness of colors and image quality by the patient is astounding.
In individuals over the age of 60, the American Optometric Association recommends an annual eye exam, including dilation of the eyes, to evaluate the vision and to check for cataracts and other ocular conditions. Since cataracts can occur at any age, it's important to get regular eye exams for all individuals young and old, even if one's vision seems adequate.