Cataracts: What You Need to Know to Protect Your Vision

Over 24.4 million people over the age of 40 are affected by cataracts, and that number is expected to rise to 50 million by 2050. But with straightforward and highly effective cataract surgery techniques, these patients are able to improve their sight. Learn more about cataract symptoms, cataract surgery, and patient outcomes.


Sally Wadyka

| Reviewed by

Quinn Wang, MD

Cataracts are one of the most common age-related eye conditions. Fortunately, cataract surgery is one of the most effective and frequently performed procedures in the U.S.

While cataracts typically occur in older adults, younger people can also experience cataracts. You can be born with cataracts or develop them due to disease or injury. They may develop starting in your 40s or 50s and start to affect your vision by the time you reach your 60s. About half of people age 75 or older either have cataracts, or already had surgery to remove them. Without treatment, cataracts can lead to blindness. However, this blindness is often reversible with cataract surgery. After the procedure, most people experience clearer vision.


What are cataracts?

The lens of your eye sits right behind the iris (the colored part of your eye). Normally, the lens is clear. This allows it to focus light onto the retina, the light-sensing tissue of your eye, so that the images you see appear sharp.


Starting around age 40, the proteins in the lens start clumping up, making the lens cloudy. These cloudy areas of the lens are called cataracts. When the lens is cloudy, it scatters or blocks light instead of focusing it onto the retina. So rather than seeing sharp images, your vision becomes blurry.


Most people develop cataracts in both eyes, although one eye may be more affected than the other. If you have cataracts in both eyes, you will need to have separate surgeries to remove them. 


Can cataracts be prevented?

For most people, developing cataracts simply comes with age. In other words, getting cataracts is similar to getting wrinkles. Cataracts can also result from eye injury or metabolic issues such as poorly controlled diabetes. Regardless of the mechanism, not all cataracts are immediately visually significant, meaning that it may take time to notice symptoms.

Age-related cataracts cannot be prevented. But certain risk factors can increase the rate at which cataracts become visually significant. 


You can help help slow down the progression of age-related cataracts by: 

·  Not smoking

·  Eating a diet rich in antioxidant-packed fruits and vegetables

·  Protecting your eyes in the sun

·  Maintaining a healthy weight and taking other steps to prevent diabetes

·  Limiting use of medications, such as steroids, that can lead to cataracts


Understanding cataract symptoms

Cataracts caused by an eye injury or diabetes can sometimes develop quickly and lead to pronounced vision changes. But for most people with age-related cataracts, the changes occur very gradually. You may start to develop cataracts as early as your 40s, but not notice any symptoms until at least a decade or two later. When you start to notice symptoms, that is when the cataract has become “visually significant.”


As the cataracts worsen, you may experience symptoms such as:

·  Blurry vision

·  Difficulty seeing well at night

·  Sensitivity to glare, especially from lights at night

·  Seeing a double image

·  More frequent changes to your glasses or contact lens prescription

·  Bright colors appearing faded or washed out


Diagnosing cataracts

If you start to notice vision changes, have difficulty seeing well at night or experience other symptoms of cataracts, you should see your eye doctor for an evaluation. Your provider will dilate your eyes and do a comprehensive eye exam, including looking at the lens to determine the location and size of the cataract. They’ll also test your color vision and glare sensitivity.


Treating cataracts 

Mild cataracts may not require any treatment. Even as cataracts worsen, small steps — such as changing your glasses prescription, getting anti-glare coating on your glasses and reading in brighter light — may be enough to help you cope.


When cataracts progress to the point where they affect your ability to do everyday tasks (like reading or driving), you may opt for cataract surgery (phacoemulsification). Cataract surgery is a very safe and effective way to definitively treat cataracts. During cataract surgery, your doctor removes the cataract and replaces it with a small artificial intraocular lens (aka an IOL) that remains in your eye for life. Depending on your lifestyle preferences, there are many different types of IOLs (e.g. monofocal, multifocal) to choose from.


Cataract surgery is a quick and painless outpatient procedure that takes about an hour. Most people have cataract surgery on one eye at a time. You will be able to return home the same day, although you will need someone to drive you home because the anesthesia takes a few hours to wear off. You may experience blurry vision, foreign body sensation, and sensitivity to light for the first day or two after surgery. Even with proper post-operative care, including proper use of antibiotic drops, it can take up to two weeks to heal completely. 

Although cataract surgery is extremely safe, any surgery has some risks of bleeding or infection. In some cases, surgical complications such as a dropped lens may require additional follow-up surgeries. Cataract surgery can also slightly increase your risk of retinal detachment. Be sure to follow your eyecare provider’s post-surgery care instructions closely and return for postoperative visits as recommended.


Cataract treatment outcomes

Cataract surgery is a highly effective treatment. About 90 percent of people who have cataract surgery experience clearer vision after recovery. And once cataracts are removed, they won’t grow back, leaving you with better vision for living the life you desire.

Sources :

American Academy of Ophthalmology


National Eye Institute

Medline Plus


Taking good care of your eyes and your overall health can go a long way toward preventing age-related eye conditions. Eating an eye-healthy diet that includes lots of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables slows down the formation of cataracts and reduces your risk of macular degeneration. Getting plenty of exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can prevent diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure--both of which affect vision and eye health. And while you may not be able to prevent the presbyopia (and need for reading glasses) that comes with getting older, your eyecare professional can make sure you get the correct vision correction to see clearly.


The sun’s rays contain damaging ultraviolet (UV) light. The same UV rays that burn your skin and lead to skin cancer also affect your eyes. Staring directly into strong sunlight can damage the retina. And repeated sun exposure over time can lead to cataracts, benign growths on the eyes and even eye cancer. Protect your eyes anytime you’re in the sun by wearing sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays.


Some people claim that by correcting your vision with prescription glasses or contacts, you’re weakening your eyes—which then leads to worse vision. Their “proof” is that after wearing your corrective prescription for a while, your vision appears blurrier when you’re not wearing it. But that’s likely because you’re now used to seeing the world in clear, crisp detail—and in contrast, your uncorrected vision appears fuzzier. Getting the proper vision correction for your eyes is essential for your eye health. Don’t try to tough it out if you can’t see clearly. Visit your eyecare professional for an in-person or virtual vision screening.


Not having a bright enough light may make it harder to clearly see the words on the page, but it won’t damage your eyes or permanently impact your vision. Because you’re straining to see, you might get a headache or other symptoms of eyestrain. If you want to read in bed without illuminating the entire bedroom, get a reading light that provides just enough brightness to see your book clearly. 


LASIK surgery corrects your distance vision only, so people who are nearsighted benefit most from it. But LASIK doesn’t affect the lens of the eye, the part that helps you focus up close. As you get older, changes to the lens impact your ability to see close up. So even if you have LASIK in your 20s or 30s, you’ll most likely still need reading glasses by the time you hit your 40s or 50s.


Having your face right up next to the bright screen may give you a headache or even cause some temporary eyestrain or fatigue, but it won’t damage your vision. Children are more prone to this behavior than adults—which may be because children can focus close up better than adults can. But if your child can only see the television clearly when sitting close (and has to hold other things close to see them clearly), they may be nearsighted. Taking your child to an eyecare professional for a vision exam will help determine if they need glasses to see clearly.


Most eyecare professionals recommend removing—and thoroughly cleaning—your contacts every night. Even if you use extend-wear lenses that are approved for use a week or month at a time, it’s always safer to give your eyes a nightly break. Your contacts are more likely to accumulate bacteria when you leave them in 24/7, and that can lead to eye infections. Sleeping in your contacts also prevents essential oxygen from getting to your corneas. If you must sleep in your contacts, make it a once-in-a-while event and ask your eyecare provider about contacts that are specially formulated to let more oxygen through. 


Carrots (along with other vegetables like sweet potatoes and dark leafy greens) contain high amounts of beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. Vitamin A is essential for eye health, and a deficiency of the nutrient is the leading cause of childhood blindness in developing countries. In the U.S., vitamin A deficiency is rare, and few people get so little it could impact their eyesight. Also, there’s no evidence that beta-carotene affects the sharpness of your vision or can prevent near or farsightedness. So while getting lots of beta-carotene in your diet may help keep your eyes healthy, no amount of carrots is going to actually improve your vision and allow you to toss out your glasses or contacts. 


The jury is still out on how effective blue light glasses are for eyestrain. One recent study found they made no difference in eyestrain symptoms during a two-hour-long computer task. But some experts feel they may help alleviate eyestrain and fatigue during prolonged, cumulative screen time. Either way, blue glasses alone won’t solve the problem of too much screen time. The best way to reduce eyestrain is to limit screen time and take frequent breaks when you do need to spend several hours at your computer.


The jury is still out on how effective blue light glasses are for eyestrain. One recent study found they made no difference in eyestrain symptoms during a two-hour-long computer task. But some experts feel they may help alleviate eyestrain and fatigue during prolonged, cumulative screen time. Either way, blue glasses alone won’t solve the problem of too much screen time. The best way to reduce eyestrain is to limit screen time and take frequent breaks when you do need to spend several hours at your computer. 

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