June is Cataract Awareness Month in the US, and that makes this a good time to begin thinking about whether you or a senior loved one might be developing cataracts. Cataracts can lead to blindness and they can affect people of any age, although they occur much more frequently in people over the age of 40. More than 50% of the people who reach the age of 80 either have cataracts or have already had cataract surgery. The good news is that cataract surgery is successful in more than 95% of all cases, so when it’s detected it can be dealt with effectively.
What exactly are cataracts?
Cataracts cause a clouding of the eye’s lens, whereas normally it would be completely clear. Anyone who has cataracts will see things as though they were looking through a window that was frosted over or fogged up. Having this kind of obscured vision will make it difficult to read, hard to drive a vehicle, or notice the expressions on the faces of people you know or meet during the day.
Cataracts are often unnoticeable in the early stages, causing only a gradual loss of vision. However, after they have developed more, the degradation of your vision becomes much more pronounced and noticeable. While still in the early phase, you might overcome the incremental loss of vision by getting stronger eyeglasses or by increasing the lighting in rooms you frequent. However, vision loss will generally reach the point eventually where your vision is severely impacted, and surgery might be necessary.
How cataracts form
Cataracts have an opportunity to begin forming when the tissue of the eye lens starts to change during the aging process. In some cases, this tissue can change as a result of some trauma to the eye, for instance, a sports injury. Some of the fibers comprising the eye lens begin to break down, and this is what causes the blurry vision symptom. People who have a family history of cataracts are generally more at risk of developing cataracts than the rest of the general population. Other eye conditions can also cause cataracts, as can medical conditions such as diabetes, or past eye surgeries. It’s also possible for cataracts to develop if you’ve been a long-term user of steroids.
In essence, a cataract is a cloudy lens, which is the part of the eye that’s positioned directly behind the iris. Any light that passes into your eye gets focused by the lens and delivered to the retina in clear, sharp images. The retina functions similarly to the film in a camera. When people age, their lenses become thicker, less transparent, and less flexible. At that point, either medical conditions or natural aging might cause the fibers and proteins that make up the lens to break down and clump up, which clouds up the lens.
As the cataracts grow larger, the cloudiness increases. Light reaching your eyes gets scattered or blocked entirely, preventing your retina from receiving normal sharp images. It’s possible for both your eyes to have the same development level of cataracts, or one eye may be cloudier than the other, depending on its development rate. Risk factors for the development of cataracts include the following:
- prolonged use of corticosteroid medications
- increasing age
- consuming excessive amounts of alcohol over an extended time frame
- high blood pressure
- smoking frequently
- regular exposure to sunlight which is excessive
- previous eye trauma or injury
- previous surgery on the eyes
While scientists have not yet discovered surefire ways to prevent cataracts, there are some things you can do to help avoid their development. For example, you can quit smoking and consuming excessive amounts of alcohol as soon as possible. Manage any other health issues you have effectively, so they can’t trigger cataract development. Maintain a healthy diet that strengthens eye tissue, and wear sunglasses whenever you’re out in bright sunshine. One of the best things you can do is schedule regular eye appointments, so your specialist can identify when cataracts begin developing and appropriate measures can be taken to deal with them.
How to know if you have cataracts
There are actually quite a few symptoms that become apparent when you are troubled by cataracts. Symptoms in the early going of cataracts will be fairly subtle, given that only a small part of the eye’s lens might be covered. However, as the cataract grows and covers up a larger part of the lens, your symptoms will usually become much more obvious. As any cataract grows in size, it will always obscure a larger portion of the lens and distort all the light waves that pass through it. By that time, the symptoms you experience could be very recognizable indeed. Here are some of the most common ways to tell if you’re afflicted with one or more cataracts:
- a fading or yellowing of many different colors
- double vision experienced in one or both eyes
- the need for more light when you want to read a book, especially if you’ve never needed extra light before
- more frequent changes to your eyeglass prescription
- observing halos around light sources
- a noticeable sensitivity to strong lighting or glares
- increased difficulty seeing things at night time
- vision which becomes clouded, blurred, or dimmer as time goes on.