What Is a Cataract?
Cataracts are a clouding of the natural lens of the eye. Behind the iris and pupil of the eye, the lens focuses light so that the eye can see at varying distances, like the focus of a camera lens. When proteins in the eyes bind together and begin to clump, they block the passage of light, causing blurred vision or even blindness. Cataracts typically progress slowly to cause vision loss and are potentially blinding if untreated.
There are three main types of cataracts, each with a different cause and symptoms. Each type begins small and grows over time.
One type, a nuclear cataract, named because it forms in the nucleus of the eye, is primarily caused by natural aging. The other two types, subcapsular and cortical, can be caused by diabetes, exposure to certain types of drugs, such as steroids, or exposure to radiation or ultraviolet light. Research into the development and treatment of cataracts is ongoing and has already brought major changes to the diagnosis and treatment of the disease.
As a cataract grows and becomes more opaque, vision will start to be compromised. Contrast in colors and in light versus shadows starts to fade, so that contours and color vision are less vivid. Glare from lights can intensify as light is scattered by the cataract into the eye.
If these symptoms are noticed, a contrast sensitivity test should be requested by your eye doctor to see if an eye specialist consultation is recommended. Another symptom to take note of is if a “halo” is observed around street lights at night, especially if confined to only one eye.
Cataracts can start to develop for a long list of reasons, including long-term exposure to ultraviolet light or radiation, as a secondary effect of diabetes and other diseases, hypertension and advanced age, uses of certain drugs or medications, or trauma. Congenital cataracts are often genetically related and a positive family history may contribute to emergence of cataracts at an earlier age. Cataracts are also unusually common in persons exposed to infrared or microwave radiation. Allergic conditions are known to quicken the progression of cataracts, especially in children. Cataracts can also be caused by iodine deficiency. Cataracts may also be produced by eye injury or physical trauma.
Some medication and drugs are suspected of increasing the risk of cataracts including steroids, diuretics and major tranquilizers, but studies are still in process to determine the actual effects of these drugs on cataract development. Hormone Replacement Treatment (HRT) is also under study to determine whether it increases a woman’s risk of developing cataracts which seems to nearly double when there is a high alcohol intake. Some eye doctors believe that a diet high in antioxidants, such as beta-carotene (vitamin A), selenium and vitamins C and E, may forestall cataract development.
Other factors that appear to increase the risk of cataracts is exposure to cigarette smoke, air pollution and heavy alcohol consumption. Eating a lot of salt could increase your risk as could exposure to lead.
At the onset of symptoms, vision may be improved by using new glasses, strong bifocals, magnification, appropriate lighting or other visual aids. But when vision can no longer be adequately corrected with these aids, it may be time to consider surgery to remove the cataracts.
Cataract surgery is very successful in restoring vision, with more than 3 million people a year undergoing surgery in the United States each year. Expected results of the surgery are excellent, with 9 out of 10 people regaining very good vision, usually between 20/20 and 20/40.
The surgeon removes your clouded lens then replaces it with a clear, plastic intraocular lens (IOL) in most instances. Cataract surgery is safe and relatively painless, a good alternative when glasses and other visual aids start to fail in producing adequate vision.
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