Seeing Clearly

There are so many positive aspects to aging – while it’s true some people become more crotchety and stubborn, most become wiser, more experienced, more forgiving and appreciative. But as our brains mature, so do our bodies, and certain health problems endemic to our chronological progression occur. That includes changes to our hearing, our mobility and our eyesight. As an example, more than 24.4 million Americans develop cataracts by age 40 and older.  By age 75, approximately half of all Americans have cataracts.

A cataract is a clouding of the normally clear lens of our eye. For people who have cataracts, seeing through cloudy lenses is a bit like looking through a frosty or fogged-up window. Clouded vision caused by cataracts can make it more difficult to read, drive a car (especially at night), see the print on signs, watch television and movies and use our computers.

Most cataracts develop when aging or injury changes the tissue that makes up the eye’s lens. Normally, cataracts develop slowly and don’t disturb our eyesight early on. But with time, cataracts will eventually interfere with vision. At first, stronger lighting and eyeglasses can help us deal with cataracts. But if impaired vision interferes with usual activities, stronger prescriptions will no longer improve visual acuity, and cataract surgery may be required. Fortunately, the only real solution, cataract surgery, is generally a safe, effective procedure.

Some inherited genetic disorders that cause other health problems can increase our risk of cataracts. Cataracts can also be caused by other eye conditions, past eye surgery or medical conditions such as diabetes. Long-term use of steroid medications, too, can cause cataracts to develop.

How Does a Cataract Form?

The lens, where cataracts form, is positioned behind the colored part of our eye (iris). The lens focuses light that passes into our eye, producing clear, sharp images on the retina — the light-sensitive membrane in the eye that functions like the film in a camera.

As we age, the lenses in our eyes become less flexible, less transparent and thicker. Age-related and other medical conditions cause tissues within the lens to break down and clump together, clouding small areas within the lens.

As the cataract continues to develop, the clouding becomes denser and involves a bigger part of the lens. A cataract scatters and blocks the light as it passes through the lens, preventing a sharply defined image from reaching our retina. As a result, vision becomes blurred.

Cataracts generally develop in both eyes, but not evenly. The cataract in one eye may be more advanced than the other, causing a difference in vision between eyes.

Typical signs and symptoms of cataracts include:

  • Clouded, blurred or dim vision
  • Increasing difficulty with vision at night
  • Sensitivity to light and glare
  • Need for brighter light for reading and other activities
  • Seeing “halos” around lights
  • Frequent changes in eyeglass or contact lens prescription
  • Fading or yellowing of colors
  • Double vision in a single eye

At first, the cloudiness in vision caused by a cataract may affect only a small part of the eye’s lens and we may be unaware of any vision loss. As the cataract grows larger, it clouds more of our lens and distorts the light passing through the lens. This may lead to more noticeable symptoms.

Factors that increase the risk of cataracts include:

  • Increasing age
  • Diabetes
  • Excessive exposure to sunlight
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Previous eye injury or inflammation
  • Previous eye surgery
  • Prolonged use of corticosteroid medications
  • Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol

How to Minimize the Onset of Cataracts

No studies have proved how to prevent cataracts or slow the progression of cataracts. But doctors think several strategies may be helpful, including:

  • Have regular eye examinations.Eye examinations can help detect cataracts and other eye problems at their earliest stages. Ask your doctor how often you should have an eye examination.
  • Quit smoking.Ask your doctor for suggestions about how to stop smoking. Medications, counseling and other strategies are available to help.
  • Manage other health problems.Follow your treatment plan if you have diabetes or other medical conditions that can increase your risk of cataracts.
  • Choose a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables.Studies have shown that a healthy diet rich in vitamins and minerals was associated with a reduced risk of developing cataracts. Adding a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables to our diet ensures that we’re getting many vitamins and nutrients. Fruits and vegetables have many antioxidants, which help maintain the health of our eyes.
  • Wear sunglasses.Ultraviolet light from the sun may contribute to the development of cataracts. Wear sunglasses that block ultraviolet B (UVB) rays when outdoors.
  • Reduce alcohol use.Excessive alcohol use can increase the risk of cataracts.Top of Form

What Happens During Cataract Surgery?

Cataract surgery involves removing the clouded lens and replacing it with a clear artificial lens. The artificial lens, called an intraocular lens, is positioned in the same place as our natural lens. It remains a permanent part of our eye. For some people, other eye problems prohibit the use of an artificial lens. In these situations, once the cataract is removed, vision may be corrected with eyeglasses or contact lenses.

Cataract surgery is generally done on an outpatient basis, so there isn’t an overnight stay involved. During cataract surgery, the eye doctor uses local anesthetic to numb the area around the eye, but the patient usually stays awake during the procedure.

Cataract surgery is generally safe, but it carries a risk of infection and bleeding. Cataract surgery also increases the risk of retinal detachment.

After the procedure, patients have some discomfort for a few days. Healing generally occurs within eight weeks. If cataract surgery is required in both eyes, the doctor will schedule surgery to remove the cataract in the second eye after the patient has healed from the first surgery.

June is National Cataract Awareness Month, and since this age-related disorder afflicts many Americans, it pays to learn cataract warning signs. For most people who have cataract surgery, the results are startling – significantly improved vision, a return to all activities, and for many, the elimination of eyeglasses or the need to wear them for either distance or reading only. Check in with your eye doctor at least annually, and know that even though it may be disconcerting, corrective measures are readily available and highly successful.

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!