Cataracts are a common eye condition among aging adults, with over 50 percent of people over 80 developing them.
This is a condition that affects the lens of the eye, forming a cloud that can impact a person’s vision and worsen over time. Cataracts are treatable via surgery, where the natural lens is removed and a synthetic lens is put in its place.
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Types of Cataracts
Broadly, there are four types of cataracts:
Age-related cataracts: This is the most common type of cataracts, forming as a natural result of the aging process. These are incredibly common.
Traumatic cataracts: These cataracts form as a result of damage to the eye, often developing soon after the injury but sometimes only appearing years later.
Radiation cataracts: These cataracts form as the result of radiation, usually ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or due to a person undergoing radiation treatments to combat cancer.
Pediatric cataracts: While this category of cataracts has some overlap with other categories, children can develop cataracts, usually as a result of genetics or due to complications during pregnancy. Pediatric cataracts are rare.
Notably, posterior capsule opacification often forms what people may call a secondary cataract, but it isn’t truly a cataract. Instead, this is an easily treated and relatively common result of cataract surgery. It has symptoms similar to cataracts, but it is actually caused by scar tissue.
Common cataract symptoms include the following:
- Blurred vision
- Double vision
- Light sensitivity
- Halos or similar effects around lights
- Poor night vision
- Colors appearing faded
- Frequent prescription changes for glasses and contacts
Untreated, cataracts tend to progress until they begin to impact a person’s quality of life. Eventually, seeing out of an affected eye may be difficult or essentially impossible. The earliest major problems many people encounter are difficulty reading and driving.
What Causes Cataracts?
The most common cause of cataracts is aging, as proteins in the eye break down as part of the natural aging process. These proteins can form clumps, which can get bigger over time.
Eventually, these clumps can affect vision. They are why people with cataracts experience blurred or clouded vision.
Risk Factors for Cataracts
Some risk factors for cataracts are outside of your control, including these:
- Being over 40 years old
- Having a family history of cataracts
- Suffering from certain health conditions, including diabetes
- Eye injuries (although practicing good safety can help to avoid many injuries)
As you age, your risk of developing cataracts increases. Over half of people over 80 will develop cataracts due to the biomechanics of aging and the eye.
However, other risk factors for developing cataracts can be controlled. These include the following:
- Excessive exposure to sunlight
- Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
- Using steroids (although sometimes steroids are a legitimate treatment for medical conditions, and you should not stop taking them in those cases without talking to your doctor)
To diagnose cataracts, a doctor will dilate your eye. This widens your pupil and makes it easier to look for cataracts and a variety of other eye conditions.
They can then perform an examination and identify the presence of a developing cataract. Your doctor can help you form a treatment plan that makes sense for the current severity of your cataract and how fast it is progressing.
This diagnosis process is usually painless, although dilation can be somewhat uncomfortable, and it takes a few hours to wear off. You will usually need someone to drive you home, as your eye will be especially sensitive to light when artificially dilated.
Treatment for Cataracts
Early treatment for cataracts is mostly about controlling one’s environment to better facilitate a good quality of life. Simple measures like brighter lights and anti-glare sunglasses can help to offset the vision problems cataracts cause.
Once you and your doctor decide your cataracts affect your life enough to justify surgery, there are usually two options: phacoemulsification and extracapsular surgery.
Phacoemulsification is the most common type of cataract surgery.
It involves making a small incision in the eye and breaking the eye’s natural lens into pieces. These pieces are then sucked out of the eye, and an intraocular lens (IOL) is inserted in its place. This is a synthetic lens that helps focus light onto your retina much like your natural lens would.
Extracapsular surgery involves a larger incision compared to phacoemulsification. The harder, central part of your lens is first removed and then the remaining pieces are taken out.
At this point, it is a similar process to phacoemulsification, with an IOL put into position to replace your removed lens.
How to Prevent Cataracts
It isn’t always possible to prevent cataracts, as you cannot prevent your eyes from aging. However, some measures these measures can delay the progression of cataracts:
- Eat a healthy diet, full of dark greens such as kale and spinach.
- Wear appropriate gear to block sunlight from entering your eyes.
- Quit unhealthy habits, such as smoking and excessive drinking.
Get regular eye exams, as they can help you catch cataracts early. With early diagnosis, you can form a comprehensive care plan with your doctor about how to minimize their progression and their impact on your life.
Are Cataracts Painful?
Cataracts are not painful in themselves. They can cause some sensitivity to light, which might cause pain when looking directly at bright lights, but this is not usually a severe issue. It can be controlled by wearing sunglasses and using dimmer lights when necessary.
Emotionally, cataracts might cause a person some difficulty, as it can be frustrating and alarming to see a significant loss in vision over time. This loss of vision can also put a person in danger, such as if they continue to drive or work around heavy machinery even when they cannot see well enough to do so safely.
Fortunately, cataract surgery is very safe and effective, allowing most people to return to a similar quality of life as they had before cataracts began to affect their vision.
What happens if a cataract isn’t treated?
Cataracts usually worsen over time and can eventually make seeing out of an affected eye very difficult. However, this progression often happens fairly slowly.
Your doctor can help you monitor the progression of your cataract so you can delay cataract surgery, which involves permanently replacing your eye’s natural lens with a synthetic lens, until your cataract is significantly impacting your quality of life.
Is there a cure for cataracts?
Cataracts cannot be cured, but surgery can remove an affected lens and insert a synthetic lens that usually allows a person’s vision to return to comparable levels as before they had a cataract.
There is no way to get rid of a cataract after it has formed other than surgery. The cataract must be removed in order to repair vision in that eye.
Can eye drops dissolve cataracts?
While some unscrupulous companies claim otherwise, it is not possible to “dissolve” a cataract. No at-home treatment exists that can fix cataracts. The only solution currently available is to remove the affected lens and put a synthetic lens in its place.
Can cataracts go away on their own?
No, the only treatment for cataracts is surgery to remove the natural lens and put in a synthetic lens.
Can cataracts come back after surgery?
No, since the natural lens is replaced with a synthetic lens, cataracts cannot come back after surgery. A cataract cannot develop on a synthetic lens.
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