What Exactly Are Cataracts?
Cataracts are one of the leading causes of vision loss in people over the age of 45. A cataract is a clouding of the lens in your eye, which is normally transparent. The lens focuses light onto the retina at the back of your eye, where it is converted to nerve signals that are passed to the brain, allowing you to see. When your lens becomes cloudy, the images projected onto your retina become blurry and unfocused and therefore the signal to the brain is also unclear.
You can compare this to looking through a dirty or cloudy window. If the window is not clear, you can’t see well. Usually, cataracts develop slowly over time, so your vision gradually worsens. While the majority of cataracts are a result of the aging process, there are also congenital cataracts that are present at birth, secondary cataracts that result from eye surgery or diseases such as diabetes, and traumatic cataracts that can happen at any age from an injury to the eye.
While you may be able to live with mild cataracts, moderate and severe cataracts are treated with surgery. The procedure involves removing the clouded lens and replacing it with an intraocular lens (IOL) implant.
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Cataract surgery is the removal of the natural lens of the eye (also called "crystalline lens") that has developed an opacification, which is referred to as a cataract. Metabolic changes of the crystalline lens fibers over time lead to the development of the cataract and loss of transparency, causing impairment or loss of vision.
Following surgical removal of the natural cloudy lens, an artificial intraocular lens implant is inserted (eye surgeons say that the lens is "implanted") to restore clear vision. Cataract surgery is generally performed by an ophthalmologist (eye surgeon) in a surgical center or hospital. Cataract surgery is one of the most successful surgeries in North America and has a low complication rate.
The symptoms people experience from cataracts may vary. Some individuals even report a temporary improvement in near vision when a cataract first develops, a phenomenon known as "second sight.”
Here is a list of possible signs and symptoms of developing cataracts:
- Blurry or cloudy vision
- Colors appear dim and less vibrant
- Halos around lights
- Double vision
- Poor night vision
- Improvement in near vision
- Glare from lamps, sunlight, oncoming traffic when driving at night or indoor lighting
If you experience any change in your vision, visit your eye doctor immediately.
While the risk of developing a cataract does increase as you age, it is not the only risk factor. Research shows that there are environmental, health, and behavioral risk factors that can also play a role in cataract development. Many of these risk factors are avoidable and preventable. These risk factors include:
- Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption
- Certain medications such as steroids
- History of eye injury or eye surgery
- Family history
- Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or other sources
Treatment for cataracts involves surgery but being diagnosed with a cataract does not mean you need to have surgery immediately, or maybe ever. You may be able to live with symptoms of early cataracts for a while by using visual aids such as new eyeglasses, anti-glare sunglasses, magnification lenses, strong bifocals or brighter lighting to suit your needs.
Surgery should be considered when the condition begins to seriously impair your vision to the extent that it affects your daily life such as reading or driving, playing golf, playing cards, watching TV, etc. Together with your eye doctor, you can go over the pros and cons of cataract surgery and determine if and when surgery is right for you.
In most cases, delaying cataract surgery will not cause any long-term damage to the eye or cause complications for surgery.