What are cataracts?
A cataract is cloudiness in the lens of the eye. This clouding obstructs the passage of light to the retina and makes objects appear blurry. Most cataracts are associated with aging and cataracts tend to worsen over time. Some common symptoms of cataracts include but are not limited to blurred vision, the appearance of halos around lights, and diminished night vision.
In addition to cataracts associated with aging, there are other forms of cataracts:
Secondary cataract- These types of cataracts occur as a result of another condition or event. For example, diabetes has been observed to increase the risk of developing a cataract. Other risk factors include steroid use, smoking, and alcohol consumption.
Traumatic cataract- These cataracts develop after an eye injury or a traumatic event to the eye.
Congenital cataract- Congenital cataracts describe the presence of cataracts at birth or early in childhood. Usually, these cataracts may be so small that they do not affect vision.
Radiation cataract- These cataracts develop after frequent and prolonged exposure to radiation.
What causes cataracts?
The lens lies behind the iris and the pupil and functions similar to how the lens of a camera works. Its main functions are to focus light onto the retina in the back of the eye and adjust the eye's focus. The lens of the eye is mainly made of water and protein. These components are arranged in a way that keeps the lens clear and allows the passage of light. However, the proteins within the lens have the tendency to clump and cloud parts of the lens as we age. As clumps start to grow and new clumps start to form on the lens, an individual may experience more difficulty seeing. In addition to aging, it is suspected that the development of cataracts is associated with smoking.
Who is at risk for cataracts?
Those who are most at risk for cataracts include:
People with diabetes
People with a family history of cataracts
People who smoke or consume alcohol regularly
People who regularly are exposed to sunlight without protection
The elderly (60 years or older)
How are cataracts diagnosed?
Cataracts should be diagnosed by a qualified professional. Typically, an ophthalmologist will perform a visual acuity test (eye chart), which will evaluate how well you see at various distances and a slit lamp exam which will allow your ophthalmologist to examine your eye under magnification. Your ophthalmologist may also perform a dilated eye examination. Eyedrops will be applied to your eyes to widen your pupils. Then, your ophthalmologist will examine your eye(s) to check for any irregularities in the eye. Additionally, tonometry may be performed to measure the pressure inside your eye.
Are cataracts life-threatening?
Cataracts are not life-threatening. Cataracts only directly affect vision.
How are cataracts treated?
Early symptoms of cataract can be improved with eyeglasses, better lighting, or sunglasses. However, if the cataract is advanced, surgery to remove the affected lens and exchange it with an artificial lens may be necessary. Your ophthalmologist will recommend surgery when a cataract impairs your vision to the point where it interferes with your everyday activities, such as driving or reading. Delaying cataract surgery will most likely not cause long-term damage to your vision or create complications during surgery. In fact, even if you and your eye care specialist decide on surgery, you may not need it for several years. There also is a chance that you might never need surgery. By having your vision tested regularly, you and your eye care professional can determine if you need treatment.
Can cataracts be prevented?
There are several measures people can take to prevent or delay the formation of cataracts. Staying healthy will decrease the risk of diabetes and consequently decrease the likelihood of developing a cataract. Abstaining from tobacco and alcohol use and decreasing the consumption of corticosteroids can also decrease the risk of developing cataracts. To reduce the risk of radiation cataracts, individuals should protect their eyes from ultraviolet rays from the sun by wearing sunglasses with adequate UV protection. Pregnant women should understand that their child may be faced with an increased risk of developing cataracts if they contract German measles during their pregnancy. To reduce this risk it is recommended that a woman receives the German measles vaccine at least three months prior to becoming pregnant. Studies have shown that a diet rich in lutein and zeaxanthin are less likely to develop cataracts than those who do not consume lutein and zeaxanthin rich foods. Foods that contain high levels of lutein and zeaxanthin include green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli.