The Importance of Cataract Awareness at All Ages

Cataracts are common in older adults, affecting more than 50% of the population aged 80 and over. Although cataracts are one of the leading causes of blindness worldwide, accounting for more than 40% of cases, they are also one of the most treatable eye conditions.

What Are Cataracts?

A cataract is a clouding of the usually clear lens behind the colored iris. The lens focuses images on the retina, which relays them to the brain. The focused image projected onto the retina is sharp and clear in a clear lens. When the lens develops cataracts, the cloudy change in the lens reduces vision and causes the image projected onto the retina to be blurry.

Cataract formation is a normal part of the aging process and may become visually significant in older adults. However, several factors may increase the risk of developing a visually significant cataract. Such risk factors include:

  • Exposure to intense heat or UV rays from the sun over a long period
  • Health conditions that affect the eyes, such as diabetes
  • Inflammation in the eyes from injury or illness
  • Long-term use of steroids
  • Smoking
  • Eye disease

Visual loss due to cataracts may progress so gradually that a patient may not be aware of it until it becomes advanced. Regular vision care exams are the best way to identify the formation of cataracts before significant vision loss occurs. If any of the following apply, a thorough eye examination is indicated:

  • Blurred or double vision
  • Seeing a “film” over one’s vision
  • Feeling that lights are always too dim
  • Having trouble reading or doing work up close
  • Difficulty seeing in bright light
  • Frequent changes in eyeglass prescription that don’t seem to help
  • A milky or yellowish spot on the eye

Types of Cataracts

There are four main types of cataracts:

  • Age-related cataracts account for 95% of cases. They typically show up after age 40 and gradually worsen over time.
  • Congenital cataracts are present at birth. They may be inherited or caused by problems during the pregnancy.
  • Traumatic cataracts are caused by lens damage and can occur due to a hard blow, cut, puncture, intense heat, or chemical burn.
  • Secondary cataracts are adjacent to a cause or treatment. Causes include certain medicines, eye disease, infection, or disease (like diabetes).

If you develop cataracts in one eye, there is an increased likelihood you will develop them in both eyes. However, the rate of progression may vary widely. Your eye care professional can examine your eyes to determine if the basis for your blurred vision is a cataract or another cause, such as glaucoma, macular degeneration, or diabetic retinopathy.  

Prevalence and Impact of Cataracts

In the U.S., more than 25 million Americans are estimated to have cataracts. Thanks to the aging population in America, that number is projected to increase by 50% to 38.5 million by 2032. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers blindness or vision problems among the top 10 disabilities among adults aged 18 and older. Loss of vision can lead to loss of independence, social deprivation and increased morbidity, often associated with medication errors or deficient nutrition.

Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness and the second cause of moderate and severe vision impairment (MSVI), accounting for between 33% and 48% of global visual impairment. Nearly 11 million people had cataract-related blindness in 2010, estimated to increase to 40 million by 2025. Vision loss and blindness contribute to a social and economic burden, with a total annual economic impact in the U.S. of approximately $51.4 billion.

Treatment for Cataracts

The most effective treatment for cataracts is surgery. Every year, more than 2 million cataract surgeries are performed in the U.S. and without complication in over 95% of cases. Cataract surgery involves removing and replacing the clouded lens with an intraocular lens. 

Surgery is typically performed on an outpatient basis. It is commonly completed in less than an hour. Patients are normally given eyedrops to prevent infection and reduce inflammation. 

Many patients find they no longer need glasses for distance and may only need a standard prescription for reading. In addition, newer technologies in implant design may allow patients to be free of any glasses correction.  

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