When the lens of the eye becomes clouded, it is deemed to be cataract. This is the leading cause of vision loss in people over the age of 40, and cataracts are responsible for the majority of blindness across the globe. Over 22 million Americans over the age of 40 are currently affected by cataracts. By the year 2020, 30 million more individuals will be affected as the aging population increases.
What causes cataracts?
The majority of cataracts occur when the tissues that make up the lens are affected by age or injury.
Genetic disorders that are inherited may lead to other complications and raise your chances of developing cataracts. Other causes of cataracts include:
- Eye problems
- Previous eye surgery
- Prolonged use of steroids
How does a cataract develop?
The lens is part of the eye where cataracts develop, and it is located behind the iris. Light entering the eye is focused by the lens, creating images that are sharp and clear on the retina.
In the case of a cataract, light is dispersed as it travels via the lens which stops the clear, sharp image that has been formed from reaching the retina. This in turn leads to blurry vision. This also leads to vision that would seem dimly lit for most people. However, the dimming effect takes place gradually, so those with cataracts may not be aware of the issue until it is fixed.
Your lens becomes thicker, less clear, and less flexible as your age increases. This causes the lens tissues to breakdown and cluster together, blurring tiny parts of the lens. The clouding expands and takes over a larger area of the lens as the cataract continues developing.
Although cataracts typically develop in the two eyes, it can develop in only one of the eyes. The cataract in one eye may be more progressed than the other eye, since cataracts are normally not proportional.
Forms of cataracts
Cataracts have different forms. They include the following:
- Nuclear cataracts (affects the lens’ center). Although this type of cataract may initially make you short-sighted or have short-term improvement in your reading vision, the lens slowly become more heavily yellow, and your vision is further clouded as time goes by.
- The lens may sometimes even change to brown as the cataract gradually grows. Because of the increased browning and yellowing of the lens, it can be hard to tell the difference between different colors.
- Cortical cataracts (affects the lens’ edges). This type of cataract starts as whitish opacities that are shaped like wedges on the lens cortex outer edge.
- The opacities spread to the middle as it gradually develops, interfering with light that goes via the lens' center. Individuals suffering from cortical cataracts normally have complications with glaring.
- Posterior subcapsular cataract (affects the lens’ posterior). This type of cataract begins as a tiny opaque part that normally develops near the lens posterior in the light's path as it goes to the retina. This cataract hinders your ability to read and minimizes your vision in bright light and at night can lead to halos or glares.
- Congenital cataracts (cataracts you are born with). Some individuals may be born with cataracts or develop them when they are young. This type of cataract could be a result of an infection the mother contracted when she was pregnant.
- Conditions like rubella, galactosemia Lowe’s syndrome or myotonic dystrophy may also lead to congenital cataracts. This cataract typically does not interfere with vision although they are taken out immediately when they are detected.
Can cataracts be treated?
When the cataracts are well-developed, they will significantly impact vision. When it is deemed necessary, surgery can be performed to remove the lenses, which is where the cataracts develop. Of course, the removal of the lenses causes the need for lens replacements. There are various lens options available, and each provides a different benefit. For example, there are lenses that are meant to improve distance vision and lenses that are meant to provide strong nearsighted vision. There are also lenses that are designed to provide vision that is both strong at short and far distances. It is also possible to achieve monovision with cataract surgery. Monovision is used for both near and far sight; however, one eye is intentionally farsighted, while the other eye is intentionally nearsighted. This is also done with contacts, and there are people that like this. However, your doctor may recommend against this, unless you are already used to having monovision with contacts. Each type of lens also has disadvantages, so be sure to discuss this with a doctor. Getting new lenses will also deem the use of contacts and glasses unnecessary in most situations.
Most people have cataracts in both eyes, so it will be necessary to have surgery on both eyes to correct the vision. However, it is strongly recommended that the surgery is only performed on one eye or the other at a time. Therefore, two surgeries will be scheduled to correct cataracts for most people. This will allow for an easier recovery period, as the eye that has been corrected will need to remain covered for a while. Therefore, one eye will still be available for vision while the other eye heals.
What should be expected from cataract surgery?
The surgery itself only takes about 15 minutes to perform. This may seem surprising, but it is not a very complicated surgery. However, you should expected to be there much longer, because you must be prepped for surgery and they will keep you there after surgery for a bit to ensure everything is alright. They will also give you post-op instructions and tell you what to expect after surgery.
It is important that you do not drive after surgery, because your vision will be somewhat compromised, even if surgery was only performed on one eye. Additionally, strenuous activity should not be performed until the eye is fully healed. This includes carrying items that are considered to be heavy, which is generally considered to be about 25 pounds. While the eye continues to heal, it is important to keep dust, dirt, and any other particles out of the eye. Medicated eye drops will also be provided to care for the eye after surgery.
Cataracts can certainly cause blindness, but the condition is easily cured if medical care is available. The surgery may seem intimidating, but it is actually a very simple procedure that will restore vision.