Tribune Print Share Text

Cataracts: Clouds in your eyes

Created date

April 26th, 2010

Cataracts are a leading cause of visual loss among older adults in the U.S., says Mary Norman, M.D., medical director at Highland Springs. ' In fact, more than 20 million Americans age 40 and older have cataracts. By age 80, more than half of all people in the U.S. either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery.

What is a cataract?

[caption id="attachment_11489" align="alignright" width="280" caption="(File photo)"][/caption] A cataract is a clouding of the lens in your eye. The lens works much like a camera lens by focusing light onto the retina at the back of the eye, where an image is recorded. The lens also adjusts the eye s focus, letting you see things clearly both up close and far away. The lens is made of mostly water and protein. The protein is arranged in a precise way that keeps the lens clear and lets light pass through it. As you age, some of the protein may clump together and start to cloud a small area of the lens. These clumps of protein reduce the sharpness of the image reaching the retina. Common cataract symptoms are blurry vision, colors that seem faded, glare, reduced night vision, or double vision. Cataracts tend to develop slowly so most people have a gradual decline in their vision, Norman says. Someone may not know they have a cataract until they have trouble driving or have a fall. A cataract can occur in either or both eyes. It cannot spread from one eye to the other. As a cataract progresses, the lens may slowly change to a yellowish or brownish color, which can add a brown tint to your vision. If you have a lot of discoloration in your lens, you may not be able to identify blues and purples. You may be wearing what you believe to be black socks, only to find out from friends that you re wearing purple socks.

Who is at risk for cataracts?

The risk of cataract increases as you get older. Diabetes can contribute to the progression of cataracts, although it is not an actual risk factor for developing them, Norman says. Certain medications, like steroids, may also contribute. Personal behaviors, like smoking and alcohol use, may also have some effect on cataract formation. Other factors that researchers suspect may cause cataracts include eye inflammation, eye injuries, other eye diseases, hereditary influences, and prolonged exposure to sunlight.

Treatment options

The symptoms of early cataract may be improved with new eyeglasses, brighter lighting, anti-glare sunglasses, or magnifying lenses. If these measures do not help, surgery may. Surgery involves removing the cloudy lens and replacing it with an artificial lens. A cataract needs to be removed only when vision loss interferes with your everyday activities, such as driving, reading, or watching TV. You and your doctor can make this decision together. [caption id="attachment_11491" align="alignright" width="280" caption="Blocking ultraviolet sunlight may help delay cataract formation. (File photo)"][/caption] There is no magic bullet that will prevent cataract formation, Norman says. All of the things you should do for a healthy heart eating right, exercising, not smoking all apply to healthy vision. Wearing sunglasses and a hat with a brim to block ultraviolet sunlight may help to delay cataract formation or progression. If you are age 60 or older, you should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once every two years, more often if you have other health conditions that may affect your sight such as high blood pressure or diabetes. Your doctor can also check for signs of age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, and other vision disorders.