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What are Cataracts?

Photo of a vision exam with text "Get the facts on cataracts"

A cataract is a clouding of the lens of the eye, which is normally clear. Those with cataracts may experience blurry vision as it progresses, which can make everyday tasks difficult. Cataracts are a very common condition for those over the age of 55, but they can also occur in infants and young children. By age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery, according to the National Eye Institute.

What Causes Cataracts?

In most cases, cataracts are due to age-related changes in the lens. However, there are other influences that affect the speed at which cataracts form and what type of cataract forms, such as:

  • Diabetes: individuals with diabetes are at a higher risk for developing cataracts
  • Medications: certain medicines are associated with cataract formation. These include corticosteroids, chlorpromazine and other phenothiazine-related medications
  • Ultraviolet radiation (sunlight): studies show that cataract formation increases with increased exposure to unprotected UV radiation
  • Smoking
  • Increased alcohol consumption
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure

Vision with cataractsWhat are the Symptoms of Cataracts?

When the normally clear lens becomes clouded, it can no longer focus properly. This leads to vision problems that may manifest as:

  • Blurred or hazy vision
  • Reduced intensity of colors
  • Increased sensitivity to lights or glare from lights – especially headlights when driving at night
  • Change in the refractive error (prescription) of the eye
  • Seeing “halos” around lights

What is the Treatment for Cataracts?

There is no treatment to prevent or slow cataract progression. Age-related cataracts can occur in all individuals, but it is important to eliminate any of the contributing factors as much as possible. This includes wearing protective, polarized sunglasses when outdoors during all seasons, maintaining strict control of diabetes, not smoking, and limiting alcohol consumption to name a few. Routine comprehensive eye exams with an optometrist are important in the identification of cataracts. An optometrist will discuss the severity of the cataract’s effect on your eye and if and when surgery should be considered.

Surgery is the only treatment to remove cataracts. According to the American Optometric Association, cataract surgery is one of the safest and most effective types of surgeries in the US and approximately 90 percent of patients report better vision following the surgery. Cataract surgery involves removing the clouded lens in the eye and replacing it with an artificial lens. Artificial lenses require no care and can significantly improve vision.

The surgery is usually performed in-office and typically does not take long. As with any surgery, there is risk from infection and bleeding so it is important to discuss the benefits with your optometrist and cataract surgeon.