According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide. Approximately 20.5 million Americans age 40 and older have cataracts, and by age 80 more than half of Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery, says the National Eye Institute. What was once thought as a condition that had to "ripen" to the point of vision loss, however, is now a safe and effective outpatient surgical procedure that can improve and even restore vision.
Cataracts can be confusing. Sometimes people think of them as a growth over the eye, while others have attributed them to an infection that could spread from one eye to the other. Both of these ideas are false. In reality, scientists don’t yet know exactly what causes a cataract – the blurring, clouding, or yellowing of the eye’s natural lens but they do believe that the clouding is formed by the clumping of proteins that are usually arranged in a precise way to keep the lens clear.
If you suspect a cataract, you should see your optometrist or ophthalmologist right away. Some signs of cataract may include a painless clouding or blurring of vision, colors seeming faded, sensitivity to light, poor night vision, frequent eyewear prescription changes, double vision, or a sudden improvement in close-up vision. Cataracts can sometimes be helped early on with a change in eyeglass prescription, magnification, brighter lighting, or other visual aids.
Eventually, a cataract will obstruct your vision. It may be a slow process, but once the cataract interferes with your ability to do normal daily tasks safely and effectively, it is time to talk with your ophthalmologist about surgical removal of the cataract. Surgery is currently the only option available, but it is done on an outpatient basis. A cataract cannot be removed with laser surgery or treated with medication. Rather, a small incision must be made and the lens removed; typically, the removed lens is replaced with a permanent intraocular lens (IOL). You won’t feel this lens, and it cannot be rejected by the eye. Your eye doctor will take careful measurements before surgery to select a lens that will best restore your vision, and it may even correct previous nearsightedness or farsightedness in the process. In fact, new IOLs are being developed that can potentially correct astigmatism and presbyopia.
So, what about prevention? Some things that may help prevent cataracts include protecting your eyes from the ultraviolet rays of the sun with appropriate sunglasses (see the label for 100 percent blockage of UVA and UVB) and a wide-brimmed hat. Eat a diet high in antioxidants (fruits and vegetables), reduce salt intake, and keep alcohol consumption to a minimum. Smoking may also increase your risk for cataracts, so smokers should try to quit. Have regular eye exams every 2 to 4 years for those 40-64 years and every 1 to 2 years for those 65 and older. If you are at high risk (such as those with a family history of cataracts, diabetes, or other medical problems), have eye exams once a year or as recommended by your doctor.
For more information, contact your Texas AgriLife Extension Service Carolyn McDowell, San Saba County agent at 325-372-5416. For more information on cataracts, please see our Health Hints newsletter at http://fcs.tamu.edu/health/healthhints/2008/mar/cataracts.pdf, or the American Academy of Ophthalmology patient education resources at https://secure3.aao.org/store/common/index.cfm?mode=xighvzix& &focus=PATED&categories=& keywords=PRINT&check=nav, or the National Eye Institute at http://www.nei.nih.gov/health/cataract/