If you’ve ever peered out of a dirty window or gazed over a foggy horizon, you’ve gotten a glimpse into what it’s like to live with cataracts. The leading cause of vision loss worldwide, cataracts occur when proteins in the eye’s lens break down and clump together, clouding one’s sight much in the way an eyeglass smudge would. For a clearer picture of this common condition, let’s take a look at its causes, symptoms, treatment and prevention.
Eye to Eye
Most cataracts relate to aging, and the condition most frequently begins with a gradual onset around the age of 50. By 80 years old, the vast majority of Americans have developed cataracts (or already undergone cataract surgery). Regardless of age, this troublesome blurriness can also be caused by congenital, traumatic or metabolic factors, such as uncontrolled diabetes.
While cataracts don’t actually hurt, the condition isn’t entirely painless. In addition to blurring a person’s sight, cataracts can lead to increased light sensitivity, decreased night vision, reduced depth perception and washed-out colors. As a result, the simplest everyday tasks like reading, driving and recognizing faces become difficult. “We’re concerned with more than just blurring sight—cataracts predispose a person for falls, car accidents, dementia and isolation secondary to not having clear vision. Patients with impaired sight are less likely to enjoy social or physical activities,” explains Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated ophthalmologist Dr. Robert House.
A routine checkup by an ophthalmologist or optometrist can provide an eye-opening look at a person’s ocular health. When a standard visual acuity test uncovers the presence of impaired vision, the doctor may conduct further evaluations to check for cataracts and other eye conditions. Eyecare providers often perform a slit lamp exam, which uses a magnifier to inspect the front of the eye, and a retinal exam, where the pupil is dilated for a check of the back of the eye. (Other imaging techniques can also rule out additional causes of vision loss, including glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic eye disease.)
While remedying cataracts isn’t as easy as wiping a murky window with Windex, intervention for the condition is straightforward and effective. Beginning cataracts don’t necessarily require treatment, but when they advance enough to become visually significant, surgery may be recommended. “Symptoms of visually significant cataracts can include worsening distance or reading vision, a problematic glare, a large change in your glasses prescription, or the need for additional light to see,” says Dr. House. The most commonly performed procedure in the U.S., cataract removal has made remarkable strides in the past two decades and can swiftly restore clear vision. The quick outpatient procedure involves replacing the cloudy lens with an artificial or “intraocular” lens. Most patients report markedly improved vision 24 hours after surgery, with further recovery occurring in the following weeks. “My patients often joke that they can now see how dusty their house is,” adds the ophthalmologist.
A bit of foresight can preserve your visual clarity. In the same way you slather on sunscreen, guard your eyes from harmful ultraviolet rays by donning UV-protective sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat whenever you’re in the sun. And be sure to keep an eye on healthy lifestyle habits, such as eating a balanced diet rich in antioxidants, getting regular exercise, avoiding cigarettes and watching out for chronic conditions like diabetes. If impaired vision is interfering with everyday activities, consult your eye doctor. “Just because you have the beginning signs of cataracts doesn’t necessarily mean you need surgery, but it is important to see your eyecare provider if you experience a change in your vision,” stresses Dr. House. “In most cases, timely detection leads to the most effective intervention and treatment.”
The board-certified ophthalmologists at the Roper St. Francis Eye Center, recognized as among the community’s most respected specialists, are at the forefront of surgical and laser treatments for a range of eye conditions. Get started on your journey towards improved sight and discover the services and procedures we offer tailored to your unique needs.
Written by Lauren B. Johnson