Prevent Blindness America, the nation’s leading volunteer eye health and safety organization, has declared June as Cataract Awareness Month. Cataracts, which are the clouding of the lens, are the leading cause of vision loss in the US and the leading cause of blindness in the world. Want to know more about these sight-stealers? Read on.
The lens is positioned behind the iris, the colored portion of your eye. It focuses light entering the eye onto the retina, the light-sensitive layer of nerve tissue lining the back of the eye. The retina turns light into electrical signals, which then travel from the retina to the brain through the optic nerve. The brain interprets the electrical signals as the images you see.
The lens is made up of mostly proteins and water. As the proteins break down over time, they clump together and make the lens cloudy, so it’s difficult for light to pass through to the retina. As a result, vision is distorted. This is a natural part of the aging process.
Because most cataracts develop slowly over years, you may not notice any signs or symptoms until the cataracts become large and begin to block the light entering your eye. Common signs and symptoms of cataracts include:
• Clouded, blurred, hazy or foggy vision.
• Sensitivity to light and glare, particularly that from oncoming headlights while driving at night.
• Difficulty seeing at night or needing additional light to read and perform close-up tasks.
• Seeing halos around lights.
• Faded or yellowing of colors.
• Double vision out of the affected eye.
• Requiring frequent upgrades to glasses or contact lens prescriptions.
Most cataracts are age-related. More than half of all Americans have had a cataract or cataract surgery by age 80. But there are other factors that can increase your risk for developing cataracts at a younger age. These include: a family history of cataracts, diabetes, excessive exposure to sunlight, smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, previous eye injury or eye surgery, prolonged use of steroid medications and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.
To diagnose cataracts, your eye doctor will ask you about your symptoms. The doctor will also look closely at your eye and may use certain tests. These tests may include a visual acuity test, which is the “eye chart exam”; a slit-lamp test, which uses a special microscope with a bright light that permits the doctor to view different parts of your eye; and a retinal exam, in which the doctor dilates your pupils and determine how much light is reaching your retina.
The only way to treat cataracts is surgery. However, you may not need surgery right away. If your cataracts are caught early and your symptoms are mild, you may be successfully treated with a new prescription for your glasses or contact lenses. But when your symptoms get in the way of your daily tasks, particularly if they make driving dangerous, it’s time to consider cataract surgery.
Cataract surgery is typically performed on one eye at a time, with a break of a week or two in between. Each procedure takes just minutes and starts with the breakup and removal of the clouded lens. Then, a clear replacement lens is implanted, permanently correcting the vision.
The new lens, called an intraocular lens (IOL), is positioned in the same place as your natural lens and remains a permanent part of your eye. IOLs are typically made of a flexible plastic such as acrylic or silicone. IOLs come in different focusing powers to correct a variety of vision issues. They are clear, shaped to fit your eyes and personalized to your vision needs.
No studies have shown how to prevent cataracts or slow their progression. But there are a few things you can do to help safeguard your eye health. These include:
• Get regular eye exams.
• Quit smoking.
• Manage your diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic health conditions.
• Eat a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables.
• Wear sunglasses when outdoors.
• Drink alcohol in moderation.
— Patti DiPanfilo