What Are Cataracts? Cataract Awareness Month

June is Cataract Awareness Month – but what exactly are cataracts and what causes them?

Cataracts are a clouding over of the eye – they can happen in one or in both and they are often associated with aging, but they can also occur in younger people and for reasons other than aging. Estimates by the U.S. National Eye Institute are that at least half of people who are 80 years old have either had a cataract or have one.

Cataracts can be congenital, meaning that you are born with them or they can develop later in childhood. Cataracts can also form as the result of another eye problem (such as glaucoma), illness (such as diabetes), an effect of medications (such as steroids), trauma (injury or surgery), or by radiation. But, the most common reason is aging.

The best way to reduce the risk of developing age-related cataracts is by caring for your eyes while you are younger – by shielding your eyes from the sun. The same rays that damage your skin, both UV-A and UV-B, can speed the development of cataracts. This means wearing proper sunglasses, wearing hats, and not looking directly into the sun. Sunglasses are more popular in the summer time, but winter sun – rays bouncing off the glaring snow – is also dangerous. Where you are also plays a role. If you are on a mountain, the altitude affects the ultraviolet exposure too. For each 1000 feet you go up on a mountain, your UV exposure to your eyes increases by about 5 percent. This increases even more if the area includes snow.

It’s never too early or too late to start protecting your eyes. Children should also wear sunglasses, but they need to be real ones – not the play ones that you find in dollar stores or the toy aisles. These could end up doing more damage because you or the child believe that the eyes are protected, when they are actually getting more sun exposure because of that belief.

Symptoms of cataracts include (from the Mayo Clinic):

• Clouded, blurred or dim vision

• Increasing difficulty with vision at night

• Sensitivity to light and glare

• Seeing “halos” around lights

• Frequent changes in eyeglass or contact lens prescription

• Fading or yellowing of colors

• Double vision in a single eye

Treatment for cataracts has improved significantly over the past few decades. When I first began working as a nurse in the early 80s, patients who were having cataract surgery were admitted at least one or two days before their surgery and they stayed at least a day or so after. Now, it’s an outpatient procedure and people are sent home within hours. The clouded lens is removed and replaced with an artificial lens. If both eyes are affected, only one eye will be done at a time, usually.

If you are concerned that you may be developing cataracts, you should visit your eye care specialist.