Cataracts occur when the lens of the eye becomes cloudy and affects the retina's ability to properly interpret and transmit signals of light to the part of the brain that governs sight. When the brain receives a cloudy signal, vision then becomes cloudy or blurred. Although rare cases exist in which babies are born with congenital cataracts, cataracts most commonly affects older adults, especially those over the age of 80.
Who is at risk?
Causes of cataracts can vary. As mentioned above, some can be present at birth. In adults some cataracts are caused by ultraviolet light exposure, while others are the result of previous eye injury. Cataracts can also form after eye surgery or as a result of diabetes. Some reports link smoking, alcohol consumption, sustained exposure to sunlight and/or steroid usage to cataracts.
When cataracts develop due to aging, as most do, they are most commonly a result of the proteins contained in the eye's lens bunching together and in turn, distorting vision. Cataracts can affect one or both eyes. Sometimes small cataracts only affect partial vision. However, generally cataracts continue to grow larger over time, causing multiple vision problems.
Signs of cataracts developing
Poor vision at night
Halos around lights and/or sensitivity to bright lights
Discoloration of the eye's lens - usually yellow/brown
Brown tinge to things you can see and/or colors seem dull
Inability to tell the difference between blue, purple and black colors (in advanced stages)
Diagnosis and treatment and prevention
Those in the medical field recommend comprehensive eye exams every two years for adults 60 years and older. These types of exams can detect early signs of cataracts, as well as other diseases that affect the eyes (e.g., glaucoma, macular degeneration). For cataracts in early stages, prescription glasses may help alleviate some of the early symptoms. In other cases, surgery is needed to replace the old lens with an artificial lens.
While many cataracts are caused by the simple wear and tear on the eye's lens as people age, there are preventative measures one can take that may deter cataracts from developing. These include:
Refrain from smoking, drinking and steroid use (unless steroids are deemed necessary by your doctor to treat a medical condition)
Wear sunglasses that protect your eyes from harmful ultraviolet light when outdoors
Make sure your diet contains green, leafy vegetables and other foods that have high levels of antioxidants
Talk with seniors to ensure they understand the warning signs and symptoms of cataracts. Encourage a visit to a vision specialist if there is concern. The earlier a diagnosis is made, the better the chances of treating conditions that affect they eyes as people age.