Cataracts are the most common cause of vision loss in people over age 40 and is the principal cause of blindness in the world. In fact, there are more cases of cataracts worldwide than there are of glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy combined, according to Prevent Blindness America (PBA).
Today, cataracts affect more than 22 million Americans age 40 and older. And as the U.S. population ages, more than 30 million Americans are expected to have cataracts by the year 2020, PBA says.
Types of cataracts include:
- A subcapsular cataract occurs at the back of the lens. People with diabetes, high farsightedness or retinitis pigmentosa, or those taking high doses of steroid medications have a greater risk of developing a subcapsular cataract.
- A nuclear cataract forms deep in the central zone (nucleus) of the lens. Nuclear cataracts usually are associated with aging.
- A cortical cataract is characterized by white, wedge-like opacities that start in the periphery of the lens and work their way to the center in a spoke-like fashion. This type of cataract occurs in the lens cortex, which is the part of the lens that surrounds the central nucleus.
Cataract Symptoms and Signs
A cataract starts out small and at first has little effect on your vision. You may notice that your vision is blurred a little, like looking through a cloudy piece of glass or viewing an impressionist painting.
Hazy or blurred vision may mean you have a cataract.
A cataract may make light from the sun or a lamp seem too bright or glaring. Or you may notice when you drive at night that the oncoming headlights cause more glare than before. Colors may not appear as bright as they once did.
The type of cataract you have will affect exactly which symptoms you experience and how soon they will occur. When a nuclear cataract first develops, it can bring about a temporary improvement in your near vision, called “second sight.”
Unfortunately, the improved vision is short-lived and will disappear as the cataract worsens. On the other hand, a subcapsular cataract may not produce any symptoms until it’s well-developed.
If you think you have a cataract, see an eye doctor for an exam to find out for sure.
What Causes Cataracts?
The lens is mostly made of water and protein. The protein is arranged in a precise way that keeps the lens clear and lets light pass through it.
But as we age, some of the protein may clump together and start to cloud a small area of the lens. This is a cataract, and over time, it may grow larger and cloud more of the lens, making it harder to see.
No one knows for sure why the eye’s lens changes as we age, forming cataracts. Researchers are gradually identifying factors that may cause cataracts — and information that may help to prevent them.
Other types of radiation may also be causes. For example, a 2005 study conducted in Iceland suggests that airline pilots have a higher risk of developing nuclear cataract than non-pilots and that the cause may be exposure to cosmic radiation. A similar theory suggests that astronauts, too, are at risk from cosmic radiation.
Other studies suggest people with diabetes are at risk for developing a cataract.
The same goes for users of steroids, diuretics and major tranquilizers, but more studies are needed to distinguish the effect of the disease from the consequences of the drugs themselves.
Some eye care practitioners believe that a diet high in antioxidants, such as beta-carotene (vitamin A), selenium and vitamins C and E, may forestall cataract development. Meanwhile, eating a lot of salt may increase your risk.
Other risk factors include cigarette smoke, air pollution and heavy alcohol consumption.
But larger studies are needed to confirm whether lead can definitely put you at risk and, if so, whether the risk is from a one-time dose at a particular time in life or from chronic exposure over years.*
Researchers say additional studies also are needed to confirm whether hormone replacement therapy (HRT) significantly increases chances that cataracts will form and progress to the point that surgical removal is required.
An eight-year study of more than 30,000 postmenopausal Swedish women found a 14 percent increased risk for cataract removal among those who used HRT at any time and an 18 percent increased risk for current HRT users.
HRT use combined with regular alcohol consumption appeared to create a 42 percent increased risk of cataract removal, compared with women who had never used HRT or alcohol.
The HRT study was reported in the March 2010 issue of Ophthalmology.
When symptoms begin to appear, you may be able to improve your vision for a while using new glasses, strong bifocals, magnification, appropriate lighting or other visual aids.
Think about surgery when your cataracts have progressed enough to seriously impair your vision and affect your daily life. Many people consider poor vision an inevitable fact of aging, but cataract surgery is a simple, relatively painless procedure to regain vision.
Cataract surgery is very successful in restoring vision. In fact, it is the most frequently performed surgery in the United States, with more than 3 million Americans undergoing cataract surgery each year, according to PBA. Nine out of 10 people who have cataract surgery regain very good vision, somewhere between 20/20 and 20/40.
During surgery, the surgeon will remove your clouded lens and in most cases replace it with a clear, plastic intraocular lens (IOL).
New IOLs are being developed all the time to make the surgery less complicated for surgeons and the lenses more helpful to patients. Presbyopia-correcting IOLs potentially help you see at all distances, not just one. Another new type of IOL blocks both ultraviolet and blue light rays, which research indicates may damage the retina (see illustration).
Read more on this website about what to expect if you have cataract surgery and how to deal with rare cataract surgery complications. Also, men should be aware that certain prostate drugs can cause intraoperative floppy iris syndrome (IFIS) during a cataract procedure.