June is Cataract Awareness Month, a great opportunity to educate yourself on this eye condition that so many of us will experience in our lifetimes. By age 65, as many as 90% of people have at least one cataract forming. We’ve all heard the term cataract, but what exactly is a cataract?

A cataract is simply when the natural lens of your eye becomes thick and cloudy. The lens of your eye is typically clear and easy to see through, but when proteins in the lens break down, symptoms occur – like cloudy, foggy, blurry, hazy, or even “less colorful” vision. Though they are often a natural part of aging, cataracts can negatively impact not only your vision but, ultimately, your quality of life – how you work, play, and interact with the world.

  1. What causes cataracts, and when do they start?

As your eye health professionals, we encourage you to become familiar with the causes of cataracts in order to be proactive with your vision health. Typically, people begin to notice symptoms as they approach their 60s or 70s. However, some people experience symptoms as early as their 40s or 50s.

Age-related cataracts are a result of the normal aging process and form gradually over time. Sometimes cataracts develop more rapidly, and age is not the only factor in the changes to the lens of the eye. Other contributing factors in early formation of cataracts can include:

  • Genetics – if you have family members who have cataracts
  • Smoking
  • Medical conditions, such as diabetes
  • Radiation treatments of the upper body
  • Eye injury
  • Failure to wear sunglasses or UV-protective eyeglasses
  • Medications, like corticosteroids
  1. What are the signs and symptoms of cataracts?

One typical early symptom of a cataract is that you begin to have difficulty seeing at night – particularly when driving, due to “halos” around the headlights of oncoming cars. But be aware of other symptoms or changes that may indicate the formation of cataracts:

  • Blurry vision
  • Colors that appear faded
  • Double vision
  • Difficulty reading small print
  • More frequent changes in your prescription lenses

Your optometrist can definitively detect cataracts in your annual comprehensive eye exam. Because patients “adapt” to the slow changes in the lens of the eye, they are not always aware of the formation of a cataract. That’s yet another good reason to stay on top of scheduling your annual eye exam with your optometrist!

  1. What is involved in cataract correction?

The only treatment for cataracts is to remove the clouded lens and replace it with a new, clear lens. In general, younger patients tend to heal more quickly and resume their normal routines more rapidly. The procedure is common and very safe, so even older patients do quite well and enjoy dramatic vision benefits.

Cataract correction takes about 30-45 minutes or less per eye, and patients go home the same day. If you have cataracts in both eyes, you will have two separate procedures, allowing one eye to heal before the second cataract is removed. Keep in mind that you will need to avoid driving for a couple of days after the procedure, so you will need someone drive you home the day of the procedure.

Things to remember as you heal at home:

  • Avoid strenuous exercise.
  • No lifting of objects heavier than five pounds.
  • If you are a side sleeper, sleep on the opposite side of the healing eye. This will minimize pressure on the eye as it heals, and can shorten recovery time.

Most patients experience very little pain or discomfort after cataract correction. Eye drops will be prescribed to prevent infection. You may experience some blurred vision, minor pain, or itching as you recover but your vision will improve daily and symptoms should subside within a few days or weeks. Within a couple of days of the procedure, you will be able to return to work and your normal daily routine.

  1. Can a cataract re-grow after surgery?

No. The implanted lens, called an intraocular lens, does not need to be replaced or have any ongoing maintenance unless complications arise. Generally, the earlier a cataract is removed, the better. Untreated cataracts are more difficult to remove and complications can result.

  1. Can I prevent cataracts?

There are many causes of cataract formation that are simply out of your hands but some preventative care can help slow the formation of cataracts. Protect your eyes from the sun’s harmful UV radiation that can hasten cataract formation by wearing UV-blocking sunglasses or regular eyeglasses with an anti-UV coating. And since smoking increases the rate of cataract formation, make a commitment to quit.

Cataracts are the most common cause of vision loss worldwide. Fortunately, they can be corrected effectively with a very high success rate, estimated between 95-98%.

Schedule an appointment with your optometrist if you recognize any of the signs associated with cataracts, and we’ll discuss your symptoms and treatment. Your vision depends on it!