A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects vision for millions in the United States. Most cataracts are related to aging. By age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery.
A cataract can occur in either eye or both. It does not spread from one eye to the other.
Cataracts are caused when protein in the lens - normally arranged in a precise way that keeps the lens clear and lets light pass through it - begins to clump together and start to cloud a small area of the lens. Over time, the cataract may grow larger and cloud more of the lens, making it harder to see.
While the risk of developing cataracts increases as you get older, other risk factors include:
- Certain diseases (for example, diabetes)
- Personal behavior (smoking, alcohol use)
- The environment (prolonged exposure to ultraviolet sunlight)
In addition to cloudy vision, a cataract may make light from the sun or a lamp seem too bright, causing a glare. Or, you may notice when you drive at night that the oncoming headlights cause more glare than before. Also, colors may not appear as bright to you as they once did.
As the cataract gets bigger and clouds more of the lens (doctors use the term, "ripens"), you will find it harder to read and do other normal tasks. The word "cataract" means waterfall. For people with a ripe cataract, it is like trying to see through a waterfall.
Cataract is detected through a comprehensive eye exam that includes:
- Visual acuity test. This eye chart test measures how well you see at various distances.
- Dilated eye exam. Drops are placed in your eyes to widen, or dilate, the pupils. Your eye care professional uses a special magnifying lens to examine your retina and optic nerve for signs of damage and other eye problems. After the exam, your close-up vision may remain blurred for several hours.
- Tonometry. An instrument measures the pressure inside the eye. Numbing drops may be applied to your eye for this test.
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 is the only effective treatment.
A cataract needs to be removed only when vision loss interferes with your everyday activities, such as driving, reading, or watching TV. In most cases, delaying cataract surgery will not cause long-term damage to your eye or make the surgery more difficult. You do not have to rush into surgery.
Sometimes a cataract should be removed even if it does not cause problems with your vision. For example, a cataract should be removed if it prevents examination or treatment of another eye problem, such as age-related macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy.
If you have cataracts in both eyes that require surgery, the surgery will be performed on each eye at separate times, usually four to eight weeks apart.
Cataract removal is one of the most common operations performed in the United States. It also is one of the safest and most effective types of surgery. In about 90 percent of cases, people who have cataract surgery have better vision afterward.
To reduce your risk of developing cataracts, wear sunglasses and a hat with a brim to block ultraviolet sunlight. If you smoke, stop. Researchers also believe good nutrition can help reduce the risk of age-related cataracts. They recommend eating green leafy vegetables, fruit, and other foods with antioxidants.
If you are age 60 or older, you should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once every two years. In addition to cataracts, the professionals at Hampton Roads Eye Associates can check for signs of age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, and other vision disorders. Early treatment for many eye diseases may save your sight.
Want to prevent or slow vision loss? According to many eye care professionals, the best way to accomplish this is with early detection through regular eye exams.
Even though your vision may be clear, exams can uncover changes in the eye caused by high blood pressure, diabetes, eye tumors, retinal disorders and glaucoma. Some of these have no symptoms in the early stages. Eye exams can also lead to the earliest detection of other serious health problems-including diabetes or hypertension.
Also, children should have their first eye exam before entering kindergarten.
Schedule your eye exam today!