Cataracts can occur at any age, but they are most commonly the result of aging. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes that over 17 percent of Americans aged 40 and older have cataracts in one or both eyes.
Cataracts related to aging often progress very slowly, giving you time to think about treatment and how best to address the issue.(Learn More) Cataracts can also form due to genetics, environmental factors, illness, and injury, and these types of cataracts can progress more rapidly.(Learn More)
Left untreated, cataracts can lead to a multitude of vision problems and even total blindness.(Learn More) It is important to understand the symptoms of cataracts, so you can get treatment as soon as it is warranted. Cataracts can be managed successfully by a common surgical intervention that replaces the cloudy lens with a clear and artificial one, thus improving and even restoring vision. (Learn More)
If you experience any changes in your vision and suspect cataracts may be a factor, talk to your ophthalmologist immediately to discuss your options.
Cataract Progression Timeline
The lens of the eye is mostly made up of water and proteins. A cataract occurs when these proteins start to clump together. This clumping can then block the light that filters through the lens of the eye and therefore impair vision.
The stages of cataract progression depend on the cause. For example, a cataract that forms due to aging tends to progress very slowly over time, while a cataract that is related to illness, injury, genetic, or environmental factors at a younger age can progress much more quickly, the American Academy of Ophthalmology explains.
Aging causes the lens of the eye to become less flexible and more rigid. It can also become discolored and darken, causing vision to take on a brownish yellow hue and making it hard to tell the difference between colors and more difficult to read.
Proteins can build up on the lens and create a cataract as well, as the lens grows cloudier over time and with use. A lot of direct exposure to sunlight, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, obesity, poor nutrition, and a genetic predisposition can speed up the progression of a cataract. The National Eye Institute reports that cataracts related to age often form in a person's 40s or 50s; however, they do not usually grow enough to drastically impact vision until age 60 or later.
Illness like diabetes, use of medications like corticosteroids, injury to the eye, exposure to radiation, congenital disease, and previous eye surgery can cause cataracts to form earlier in life. Again, these cataracts can often progress faster. Cataracts that begin by forming on the back of the lens (posterior subcapsular cataract) can also progress faster than those that start forming in the middle (nuclear cataract) or those that form on the edge of the lens at first (cortical cataract), Mayo Clinic publishes.
A general timeline for cataract progression is broken down between an early and a late stage. In the early stages, a cataract can be small and not impact vision too drastically. In the later stages, the eye can turn milky white, and vision can be significantly impaired.
Generally speaking, the earlier a cataract is recognized, the better. Treating them sooner rather than later can lead to fewer issues over time.
Cataract Symptoms and When Treatment Is Needed
Cataracts can interfere with daily life and lead to vision problems that can worsen as the disease progresses. Cataract surgery is considered safe; it is common; and it can help to restore and improve vision by replacing the clouded lens with a new artificial one, often an intraocular lens (IOL) that is placed through laser-assisted technology.
Cataract surgery can be performed during either stage of cataract progression. It is important to discuss any vision changes with your doctor and ophthalmologist, so they can check for cataracts or other eye issues to prevent further vision impairment. Cataract stages are outlined below.
- Blurry or cloudy vision
- Yellowish tint to things
- Double vision
- Glares or halos around lights
- Poor night vision
- Increased sensitivity to light
- Lack of contrast
- Colors that appear dull
- Regular changes to prescription glasses or contacts
- Spot on the lens that is milky white in color and visible
- Significantly impaired vision
- Difficulties reading
- Clouding of the entire lens
An advanced, or late-stage cataract, can be more difficult to treat, so it is often considered ideal to intervene before they reach this point. As age-related cataracts often progress slowly, you likely have some time to decide how to proceed.
Consider how the cataract is impacting your daily life. If it is making it hard to see clearly, to read, or to enjoy activities that you normally do then it is likely time to seek treatment for a cataract, the American Academy of Ophthalmology reports. Cataracts can initially be managed with magnified prescription eyewear and polarized sunglasses, but these methods will often only delay the progression of the cataract and not stall it altogether. Cataract surgery is often the optimal choice for treating cataracts and improving vision.
Dangers of Untreated Cataracts and Benefits of Treatment
The CDC warns that cataracts are the number one cause of vision loss in the United States and blindness worldwide. If cataracts continue to progress without treatment, vision will continue to get worse until the lens of the eye is so clouded that vision is significantly impaired or lost altogether.
Cataracts often turn the lens of the eye yellow or brown, which can tint vision and make it hard to differentiate between colors and more difficult to read. Cataracts can also make your vision blurry and impair night vision as well as create sensitivity to light, including forming halos and glares around bright lights.
Again, cataracts often form slowly. As they do, your doctor can identify them and come up with a treatment plan to delay their progression, manage your vision, and even replace the lens to restore and improve vision while removing the cloudy lens and cataract completely.
Cataract surgery is common, and it can be done in an hour or so. It is relatively fast-healing, safe, and widely accessible. An artificial lens can provide clarity and improve your quality of life, helping to restore vision.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that cataract surgery is highly successful. Your ophthalmologist can help you determine when it is the right time for surgery.
Common Eye Disorders. (September 2015). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What Are Cataracts? (November 2018). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Facts About Cataracts. (September 2015). National Eye Institute.
Cataracts. (June 2018). Mayo Clinic.
Cataract Surgery. (March 2018). Mayo Clinic.
When Is the Right Time to Have Cataract Surgery? (June 2015). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Priority Eye Diseases. World Health Organization.