What you need to know about cataracts
6/5/2023 by Daniel Sanchez Pellecer, M.D.
Cataracts affect more than 24.4 million Americans by the time they reach age 40 and older. By age 75, approximately half of all Americans have cataracts. They're responsible for about 12% of cases of blindness in the U.S., but they're also treatable.
With chances of developing cataracts high, here's what you need to know about what they are, what causes them and how they're treated:
What is a cataract?
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 and older. A cataract also can 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?
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 not associated with pain.
How are cataracts diagnosed?
Cataracts are easily diagnosed by direct inspection of your eye without using any special equipment. Your primary care clinician can make this diagnosis. However, your clinician will almost always send you to an ophthalmologist for a comprehensive eye exam. The ophthalmologist will determine your treatment and make sure no other eye problems need to be addressed.
How are cataracts treated?
The main treatment for cataracts is surgery. The procedure is simple with 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 and 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, along with smoking cessation, can slow the normal aging process of the eye lens. Protecting your eyes from sunlight with sunglasses or a hat also can help.
Daniel Sanchez Pellecer, M.D., is a physician in the Division of Community Internal Medicine, Geriatrics and Palliative Care at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. His interests align with delivery systems of high-quality and compassionate primary care for older adults with a special focus on palliative care. He is board-certified in internal medicine, geriatrics and palliative care.