Vision Health

Cataracts Facts: Understanding the Inevitable Aging Process

Particularly for those who are approaching middle age, cataracts are a fact of life and a natural condition that has afflicted humans for hundreds, if not thousands of years. In simple terms, a cataract is a white, cloudy formation or opacity that develops in the lens of the eye—progressing slowly over time and with age—reducing the amount of light that passes through it and leading to blurred vision and, if left untreated, blindness. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 90 percent of people over age 65 will develop cataracts, which annually causes total vision loss in approximately 20 million people, most of whom have little or no access to proper medical care. As life expectancy increases, the WHO anticipates those numbers will increase, particularly in developing countries. But despite the fact that cataracts remain the leading cause of blindness throughout the world, there is good news: Thanks to modern medicine and advances in technology, cataracts can be easily diagnosed and treated with relatively painless and brief procedures that not only restore sight but also dramatically improve quality of life.

Myths, Facts and Risk Factors Myths and misinformation abound regarding the causes, symptoms and cures for cataracts, which is neither a disease that spreads from one eye to the other nor one that results from eye strain or overuse. Cataracts do, however, increase exponentially with age. Here’s why: The lens, which lies behind the iris and the pupil, functions similar to the lens of a camera by focusing light onto the retina at the back of the eye where an image is recorded. Consisting primarily of water and protein, the lens also adjusts the eye’s focus in order to see objects both near and far away. As a person ages, the protein—arranged with precision to keep the lens clear and allow light to pass through—clumps together and clouds a small area of the lens. Over time, the cataract may grow larger and cloud more of the lens, significantly impacting vision clarity.

Research points to several causes for cataracts, which form in one of the following three parts of the lens: the nucleus, the cortex and the posterior sub-capsule. While aging is the most common cause, cataracts can also result from eye injuries, medications and congenital birth defects, which occur in approximately one out of 10,000 infants. Here are some other important facts to consider:

  • Women are at higher risk than men
  • Cataracts tends to run in families
  • People who are nearsighted (myopia) are at increased risk of developing cataracts
  • African-Americans are at twice the risk of developing cataracts than Caucasians
  • By the age of 80, more than half of all Americans have a cataract or have had cataract surgery
  • By the age of 95, nearly every American will have a cataract or have had cataract surgery

Factors that can increase the risk of developing cataracts Include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Use of steroid medications