A cataract is defined as a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects one’s vision. Most cataracts are related to aging and are quite common in older people. In fact, more than half of all Americans will either have a cataract or have undergone cataract surgery by the age of 80.
The problem starts with the lens, the clear part of the eye that helps focus light, or an image, on the retina (the tissue at the back of the eye). The lens also adjusts the eye’s focus, enabling you to see images clearly from a distance or up close.
Normally, light passes through the retina’s transparent lens. From there it is changed into nerve signals that are relayed to the brain and the lens must be clear for the retina to receive a sharp image. If the lens is cloudy because of a cataract, the image you see will appear blurred.
The lens is mostly made of water and protein, the latter of which is arranged precisely to keep the lens clear and allow light to pass through it. However, as you age, some of that protein can cluster and begin to cloud a small portion of the lens, producing a cataract that may grow larger over time, clouding more of the lens and making it more difficult to see.
What Causes Cataracts?
Several factors may contribute to the formation of cataracts, including smoking and diabetes. The prevailing theory, however, is that protein in the lens simply changes from age-related wear and tear.
Of course, you don’t have to be elderly to develop a cataract. People in their 40s and 50s can have one, although they are usually small and do not affect vision. It is after a person reaches age 60 that most cataracts tend to have an adverse effect on their vision. Other risk factors for cataracts include:
- Certain diseases, notably diabetes
- Lifestyle behavior, such as steroid use, excessive smoking, and alcohol use
- Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet sunlight
Common Cataract Symptoms
The most common symptoms you might experience if you have a cataract include:
- Cloudy or blurred vision
- Sensitivity to glare (sunlight, lamps, headlights)
- Poor night vision
- Double vision
- Multiple images in one eye
- The need for frequent eyewear prescription changes
Of course, these symptoms can also be attributed to other eye conditions, so be sure to make an appointment with an eye doctor if you have any vision problems.
Other Types of Cataracts
Besides age-related cataracts, there are other types of cataracts:
- Secondary cataracts, which can form following surgery for another eye problem, such as glaucoma
- Traumatic cataracts that can develop following an eye injury
- Congenital cataracts that may have been present at birth and develop in childhood
- Radiation cataracts that develop following exposure to some form of radiation
Diagnosing a Cataract
Cataracts can be detected through a routine but comprehensive eye exam consisting of:
- A visual acuity (or eye chart) test that measures your ability to see at various distances
- A dilated eye exam in which drops are placed in your eyes to widen the pupils, allowing your eye doctor to use a magnifying lens to examine your retina and optic nerve for any signs of impairment or other eye condition
- Tonometry, a procedure in which a special instrument is used to measure the fluid pressure inside the eye
Our ophthalmologists may also perform other tests to evaluate the effect of a cataract on your ability to see clearly and perform everyday tasks such as reading, driving, watching TV, or recognizing faces.
Depending on the severity of the condition, as well as your understanding of the risks and benefits of surgery, you and your eye doctor can make an informed decision on whether cataract removal is necessary now or farther down the road.
There are cases in which a cataract should be removed even though it doesn’t pose a problem with your vision, such as when it prevents examination or treatment for age-related macular degeneration or retinopathy.
If cataract surgery is recommended, your eye doctor may refer you to a specialist such as one of the ophthalmologists at Southwest Eye Consultants. Cataract surgery is one of the most common procedures performed today and also one of the safest and most effective, with approximately 90 percent of cases resulting in better vision.
To learn more about your cataract surgery options, call Southwest Eye Consultants in Durango, Colorado at (970) 828-2200 to schedule a consultation or use our convenient online appointment request form.