Employee & Community Health

Cataracts: What you need to know

6/27/2019 by Dr. Daniel Sanchez-Pellecer

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Cataracts affect more than 24.4 million Americans by age 40 and older. By age 75, approximately half of all Americans have cataracts. They're responsible for bout 12% of blindness cases in the U.S., but they're also very treatable. With chances of developing cataracts pretty high, here's what you need to know about what they are, what causes them and how they're treated. 

What is a cataract?

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A cataract is clouding of the lens, the part of your eye that focuses light. 

What causes a cataract?

This clouding is mainly driven by the effects of aging. That's why most cataracts appear in patients 60 years and older. A cataract can also develop from direct trauma to the eye and sometimes as an effect of prolonged systemic steroid use. Factors that can play a role in age degeneration of the lens include smoking, drinking alcohol, diabetes and exposure to sunlight. 

What are the symptoms of cataracts?

The symptoms often, but not always appear in both eyes, usually as blurry vision. Some patients complain of everything looking slightly brown in color. Another common symptom is difficulty driving at night. Many people say that headlights seem to have a glare or halo, and it's hard to read street signs. Symptoms are often progressive, but there's no pain associated with them. 

How are cataracts diagnosed?

Cataracts are very easily diagnosed by direct inspection of your eye, without using any special equipment. This can be done by your primary care provider; however your doctor will almost always send you to an ophthalmologist (eye doctor) for a comprehensive eye exam. The ophthalmologist will determine your treatment and make sure there are no other eye problems that need to be addressed. 

How are cataracts treated?

The main treatment for cataracts is surgery. the procedure is simple and has minimal risks. It consists of removing the cloudy lens and replacing it with an artificial one. Your ophthalmologist most likely will operate on one eye, then operate on the other at a different time. The surgery rarely causes pain or infection. Not all cataracts need to be removed, and the decision is based on the degree of vision loss being caused and whether you want to undergo surgery. When cataracts are severe enough, surgery can greatly improve vision. 

Can cataracts be prevented?

No known therapy prevents cataracts. However, a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables and smoking cessation can slow down the normal aging process of the eye lens. Protecting your yes from sunlight with sunglasses or a hat also can help. 

Dr. Daniel Sanchez Pellecer is a geriatric medicine fellow, board certified in internal medicine and working in the Division of Community Internal Medicine (CIM). His interests align with delivery systems of high-quality and compassionate primary care for older adults with a special focus on palliative care.