In most cases, a cataract causes vision to be blurry, brownish, or fluctuate in quality. You might see colors incorrectly and mistake brown for black or blue for purple. You might struggle to read in dim lighting conditions or see halos around streetlights. So, why do cataracts develop in the first place? Here are a few reasons:
Age & Genetics
Live long enough and it’s likely you’ll develop a cataract at some point. According to the National Eye Institute, more than half of Americans 80 or older have either developed or had surgery for cataracts. A cataract can begin in middle age and grow worse over the decades. By the time you notice any symptoms, you might have had the cataract for a long time. If your parents or other close relatives had cataracts, your chance of getting them increases. Cataracts don’t always cause vision problems, but it’s important to see your doctor regularly to monitor for potential problems down the road.
Overexposure to UV Light
Because cataracts are a natural result of extended use of the lens inside your eye, you might develop one earlier in life if you’ve spent a great deal of time in sunshine, have been overexposed to ultra-violet light in a tanning bed, or endured other types of radiation. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly twenty percent of cataracts are caused by light overexposure. Protecting your eyes with wraparound sunglasses during the day and using goggles when skiing or suntanning is important to prevent cataracts from arriving before your time.
Injury or Surgery
Cataracts that are unrelated to aging can develop if your eye is subjected to a blow, puncture, or other trauma (for example, hit by a baseball). In some cases, the cataract may not appear until years after the injury occurs. A cataract can also develop after an eye surgery. If the level of oxygen inside the eye increases after the surgery, your lens might react with the protein deposits that make a cataract. Although not common, a cataract called a secondary cataract can come about after surgery to remove cataracts.
If you are diabetic, you’re more likely to develop cataracts early in life and should maintain regular visits to an ophthalmologist for check-ups. Diabetes can cause your glucose levels to rise and the lens to swell, which in turn affects your vision. Also, your lens contains an enzyme that processes glucose into sorbitol. A collection of sorbitol on the lens also causes cataracts. Another disease sometimes associated with cataracts is glaucoma. Because glaucoma and cataracts both occur naturally with age, some people develop these two conditions at the same time. However, the two are not related.
Other Health Factors
Smoking and drugs – especially steroids – might also cause cataracts. Research collected by the advocacy group Unite for Sight shows that long term exposure to the free radicals in cigarette smoke might damage the proteins and fibers of the eye, which can lead to a cataract. At the same time, cigarette smoke weakens antioxidants in your body that could help remove protein from the lens and fight cataracts. Certain types of oral steroids, when consumed for long periods, might also cause lens to cloud into a cataract. Researchers are still trying to determine exactly how steroids affect the eye.
If you’ve been diagnosed with cataracts, take some comfort in knowing that, in most cases, you have the option to surgically replace your natural lens with a new one. According to the American Optometric Association, the removal of cataracts is one of the safest and most frequently performed operations in the world. During the surgery, an eye doctor will make an incision in your eye and remove the cataract, leaving the natural lens capsule in place. The capsule is used to hold a plastic intraocular lens (IOL). Thanks to technology and research, your IOL can help you see better than ever. Eye conditions such as astigmatism or far-sightedness can be addressed with the proper IOL. As with any surgery, there are small risks: Your lens capsule might react by developing a new cataract, causing the need for a second surgery.
Cataract surgery is quick and usually doesn’t require general anesthesia or an overnight stay. If you have cataracts in both eyes, your doctor will likely perform two surgeries spaced several weeks apart so that one eye is fully recovered before the second procedure is performed. After the surgery, you’ll be given prescription eye drops to help you heal, and you will need to wear a temporary mask over your eye. Your eye might be dry and uncomfortable at first, but these symptoms will gradually disappear. Also note that cataract surgery will not completely correct eye conditions such as floaters in the vitreous membrane. But with your new lenses in place, you’ll be seeing the world anew, more clearly, and most likely enjoying a second chapter of good eyesight.