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Cataracts are common
Not a day goes by in the office when I don’t tell a patient that he or she has a cataract, which is any kind of clouding in the crystalline lens of our eye. Some patients have heard of the term and understand that it’s a common occurrence as one ages. Other patients are terrified of the term and think it’s a disease that will make them blind. But the patients I relate to are the ones who hear the word cataract, and think “I’m old.”
Cataracts can affect your vision
If it helps, most cataracts develop over decades, from young adulthood onward. As early as 40 years old, we can start to notice the effects of this change over time. The crystalline lens in our eye, which is responsible for focusing light onto our retinas, begins to change shape and chemical structure over time. These changes result in more light scatter and dimming of vision. Usually, a patient will begin noticing glare from car headlights, double or ghost images around letters and lights or that night vision is not as clear or bright.
These are often initial symptoms and do not require treatment. As the cataracts continue to develop, patients’ eyeglass prescriptions may begin to change and they will also experience blurry or cloudy vision with worsening of the above symptoms. When they reach this point, which is about half of patients over the age of 65, cataract surgery may be indicated.
Cataract surgery – not as bad as you’d think
Cataract surgery is the most common surgery performed in the world. Nowadays, it can be a 15 minute out-patient procedure. The cataract is removed from the eye and replaced with an artificial lens implant, called an intraocular lens. With many advancements in this field, the lens implant can also have specialty optics which can correct for astigmatism or for both distance and reading.
What many don’t know is that cataract surgery is an optional procedure. A cataract is not malignant and does not always have to be removed. However, a patient’s vision will improve significantly with a successful cataract surgery. They will notice a much brighter and clearer environment. Some patients who have glaucoma or have a crowding of the internal structures of the eye would benefit from having cataract surgery.
Photo courtesy of Community Eye Health on Flickr
Types of cataracts
There are many different forms of cataracts. In fact, I found a cataract in a 9-month old baby when his mom brought him in for a well-visit eye examination. In such a case where the eye is still developing, clouding of the lens can interfere with visual development and needs to be removed. Other congenital form of cataracts may simply be a cloudy spot on the lens which doesn’t interfere with vision. In this case, there is no need for cataract surgery.
Cataracts can also develop from trauma, use of certain medications and diabetes. Depending on the type, a cataract can slowly worsen over years, or change rapidly requiring surgical intervention within months. For patients whose vision is changing rapidly, I often like to follow them every few months to monitor for vision and cataract changes.
People often ask what can be done to prevent cataracts. Unfortunately, genetics plays a factor so if your parents required cataract surgery, you will most likely need one also. If you’re outdoors, wear a good quality pair of sunglasses that block UVA/UVB rays. This goes for kids as well since exposure to ultraviolet radiation is cumulative. If you’re outdoors for long periods of time, throw on a hat for added protection. Smoking has been shown to cause cataracts also, so limit your exposure to cigarette smoke. If you are currently being treated for diabetes or using steroid medications, be sure to see your internist regularly.
Why wait for your vision to blur? See your optometrist every year!
Most importantly, see your optometrist annually for an eye examination. They can check for cataracts but also determine if there are other factors that may be contributing to a reduction in your vision. It’s not just the lens that helps you to see but a whole network of related structures that work as a team to provide you with optimal vision. If you require a new pair of glasses, always opt for an anti-glare coat on the lenses, which would further reduce disabling glare symptoms.
~Cindy P. Wang, OD, FAAO