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Outline on Cataracts

The National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the NIH, defines a cataract as “a clouding of the lens” that affects vision.  More than half of Americans have had a cataract by the age of 80.

Cataracts are “a leading cause of visual impairment in the United States.”  Because smoking is an important and avoidable cause of age-related cataracts, there is increased incentive to stop smoking.

Cataracts not related to aging can be secondary to surgery or other health problems (like diabetes), trauma, congenital, or radiation.

Individuals age 60 and older should have a dilated eye exam once every two years.

Causes of Cataracts

The normal aging process may include a clumping of proteins in the lens, causing a cataract, and blurred vision.  Cataracts usually grow slowly, causing vision to slowly worsen.

Small cataracts can start to form when a person is in their 40s and 50s, but do not affect vision until the 60s.

Risk Factors

Risks include prolonged exposure to sunlight, diabetes, and smoking.  The best way to combat prolonged sun exposure is to wear sunglasses.  Eating leafy green vegetables with antioxidants can also aid vision.

The Division of Preventative Medicine sponsored a study that supported the link between smoking and cataracts.  They found a reduced risk of cataracts in former smokers than current smokers, supporting the importance of smoking cessation.  “We found no evidence to indicate that even the most heavily exposed men in our population did not benefit from smoking cessation.”

A recent study found that the use of statins, which are used to reduce cholesterol, also lower the risk of nuclear cataracts (the most common type of age-related cataract).   It has been shown that statins act as antioxidants, which is beneficial because oxidative stress can cause cataracts.

Cataracts Treatment

Vision for people with early cataracts may be improved with new eyeglasses, bright lighting, and anti-glare sunglasses.

For those with cataracts interfering with vision, surgery is the only treatment, and involves replacing the cloudy lens with an artificial lens.  Delaying surgery will not cause further damages.

Cataract surgery is one of the most common operations in the United States, as well as one of the safest and most effective surgeries.  90% of cases result in better vision.  It is virtually painless, and many people stay awake during the surgery.

Current Research

The National Eye Institute is conducting studies on the effect of sunlight exposure, Vitamin supplements, and genetic studies.