Loss of vision is all too common in the aging. As June is Cataract Awareness Month, it is the perfect time for seniors to learn more about the best ways to combat the effects of this condition.
Cataracts are the leading cause of vision loss in the United States and the leading cause of blindness globally. As most forms of cataracts are directly linked with aging, seniors over 65 are primarily at risk. In fact, by age 80, half of all Americans have cataracts or have had cataract surgery in their lifetime. Other than cataracts found in the aging, other types of cataracts include secondary cataracts, which are caused by complications in surgery on other eye disorders such as glaucoma; traumatic cataracts caused by an eye injury; congenital cataracts, which occur in some children at birth; and radiation cataracts, which can occur through exposure to radiation. Despite so many seniors having to deal with a cataract due to aging in their lifetime, not everyone knows exactly what a cataract is and how it affects vision.
What is a cataract and how is it caused?
A cataract occurs when the eye’s lens becomes cloudy. Just like a camera, our eyes have lenses, which help us focus light on the retina. The retina is the tissue in the back of the eye, which helps transmit signals for the brain to process into images. The lens is made up of water and protein, and cataracts occur when these proteins clump together, which become more common as people age.
At first, many people do not notice the subtle changes in their vision. Over time, however, the cloudiness increases and vision becomes more and more compromised. As the cataract progresses, vision begins to dull and start to show a yellow or brown tint. Sufferers with more advances cases can have trouble identifying differences between shades of blue and purple.
What are the signs of cataracts?
To determine if you may be suffering from cataracts, it is important to look out for the signs. As mentioned, blurred vision is the most common symptom, as well as vision discoloration. Sufferers have also reported having issues with night vision as well as glare off headlights when driving. These light sensitivities can be severe enough that driving at night becomes impossible. Many dismiss these changes at first, and only find out they have cataracts when they take their routine eye exam.
One of the biggest indicators of cataracts in seniors is falling. Seniors with vision loss can more easily slip and fall, causing fractures or worse. Seniors suffering from blurred vision find it hard to be completely independent. Many seniors who suffer from cataracts depend on help from assisted living staff or their loved ones for driving and moving around safely. Before the effects of cataracts set in, understanding the risk factors can delay the condition or at the very least, maintain and control it.
What are the risk factors for developing cataracts?
Age is the primary factor in developing cataracts, with most cataract sufferers over the age of 65. Genetics are also a factor, as there is a link between cataracts running in families—we get our eyes from our parents, after all. Gender plays a role as well; women are more likely than men to get cataracts. Other factors include diabetes, obesity, and overexposure to sunlight.
Wearing sunglasses is one way to help mitigate the effects of cataracts. Another choice that could delay the onset of cataracts is quitting smoking; smoking has shown to be a major factor in vision loss from cataracts.
How can cataracts be treated?
The most common treatment for early cataracts is simply a new prescription for glasses or contact lenses. Seniors should make regular eye appointments with an optometrist to not only find and diagnose cataracts, but for treatment as well. If corrective lenses are not enough, a senior may require eye surgery. Cataract eye surgery involves removing the eye’s natural lens and replacing it with an artificial lens. An eye surgeon can perform the surgery in a hospital or in an outpatient facility. The surgeon will make a small incision in the eye, breaking up the cataract and removing it, and affixing the new lens. The surgery lasts generally only a half an hour. The eye that was operated on will be fairly sensitive after the surgery, but the recovery period is usually very quick.
If vision continues to be blurry, the patient should contact their doctor. All surgeries come with risk, and risk factors for cataract surgery can include infection, bleeding, swelling, pain and vision loss. However, most surgeries are conducted without any problems—the procedure has a 98% success rate. Cataract surgery, an incredibly common procedure, is usually covered through Medicare and other health insurance.