Aging isn’t kind to your eyes. Just when you get used to reading glasses or bifocals, another potential vision problem may be waiting in the wings: cataracts.
More than 20 million people have cataracts in the US and the number continues to grow as people live longer, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Cataracts are most common in older adults.
More than half of Americans age 80 and older have cataracts or have had cataract surgery. Eye surgery is usually recommended when cataracts interfere with everyday activities. Cataracts are the leading cause of vision loss in the US. Early diagnosis and treatment can help preserve vision.
“Talk to your eye doctor if your vision is cloudy or blurry or if you think you might be at risk for cataracts,” says Jose Ivan Quiceno, MD, an ophthalmologist at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines, Scripps Clinic Mission Valley and Scripps Clinic Encinitas.
A cataract affects the lens in your eye that focuses light on the retina. In a normal eye, light passes through the cornea and clear lens to the retina. There, it becomes nerve signals that are sent to the brain to create visual images.
For images to be clear, the lens must be clear. A cataract affects the proteins in the lens, causing it to cloud and result in decreased or blurry vision in one or both eyes. One may see glare or halos around lights or have trouble with your night vision.
At first, a cataract may cloud only part of your eye. Over time, it may worsen, and vision loss gradually becomes more noticeable.
- Cloudy or blurry vision
- Colors look faded
- Difficulty seeing well at night
- Sensitive to bright light from lamps, sunlight or headlights
- Double vision
- Changing prescription for glasses often
Age-related cataract is the main type of cataract. They usually start to develop after age 50; by age 60, vision changes become more apparent.
Other types of cataracts, especially in younger patients, are related to:
- High blood pressure
- Eye injury, inflammation
- Extensive time in the sun
- Excessive alcohol use
- Family history
A cataract can develop in one eye or both, but it cannot spread from one eye to the other. If one develops cataracts in both eyes, chances are one eye will be more advanced.
“The first step in treating cataracts is a thorough eye exam to rule out other causes of decreased vision, such as infection, macular degeneration, glaucoma, dry eyes or simply needing a new prescription for glasses or contact lenses,” Dr. Quiceno says.
After a cataract is confirmed, the ophthalmologist will grade its stage of development and determine the proper course of action.
Vision loss in their earliest stages may be improved with eyeglasses or contact lenses, anti-glare sunglasses or improved lighting.
Surgery may be the only effective treatment if a cataract significantly impairs vision and interferes with daily activities, such as driving at night, watching TV or reading.
Cataract surgery is one of the most common procedures in the US. It is an outpatient procedure done under local anesthesia. The cloudy lens is removed and replaced with a clear artificial lens called an intraocular lens. Surgery to remove cataracts in both eyes is done one at a time and 1-2 weeks apart.
Nine out of 10 people who have surgery see better after recovery. Most people heal after eight weeks, according to the National Eye Institute.
Surgery can eliminate or reduce the need to wear eyeglasses. It can also help treat astigmatism, which is blurred vision caused by an irregularly shaped cornea.
Lifestyle changes that can help prevent cataracts that are not related to aging include:
- Quitting smoking
- Wearing sunglasses, limit exposure to sun
- Eating healthy, especially fruits and vegetables
- Getting a dilated eye exam