Cataracts: A common problem for older adults

June 3, 2015 Providence Health Team

Cataracts are a common problem for older adults. Learn what causes cataracts, how they are treated and how to protect your vision.

Does the world seem a bit faded, perhaps not as colorful as it once was? Do you have trouble seeing at night? A cataract may be to blame.

A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye. Some babies are born with cataracts, and they can also develop after an injury. But cataracts are most common in older people. In fact, by age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract, or have had surgery to remove one.

Who is at risk for a cataract?

The lens in the eye is made of mostly water and protein. As we get older, the proteins break down and may clump together. When that happens, the proteins can cloud the lens. This is a cataract.

The risk of cataracts increases as you get older, but there are other factors that may speed their development:

  • Diabetes
  • A family history of cataracts
  • Long-term use of corticosteroids
  • Radiation exposure
  • Smoking
  • Too much exposure to sunlight

How do you know you have a cataract?

Cataracts develop slowly and painlessly. They can first appear in middle age, but it’s not until after age 60 that they usually start to cloud our vision. By 75, most of us will have cataracts that affect our eyesight.

Symptoms include:

  • Sensitivity to glare
  • Cloudy, fuzzy or filmy vision
  • Difficulty seeing at night
  • Double vision
  • Loss of color intensity
  • Seeing halos around lights

How is a cataract treated?

A standard eye exam and a slit-lamp exam with a microscope are used to diagnose cataracts. The only treatment for cataracts is surgery to remove the cloudy lens. But cataracts don’t damage the eye, and they don’t need to be removed if they don’t interfere with everyday activities such as driving, reading, watching TV or looking at a computer screen. A good place to start is with new eyeglasses, better lighting, magnifying glasses and sunglasses.

If surgery is necessary, the cloudy lens is replaced with an artificial lens. The procedure takes less than an hour and most eyes heal within eight weeks. More good news: This is one of the most common surgeries, and one of the safest and most effective. In about 90 percent of cases, people who have cataract surgery have better vision afterward.

Protect your vision

It’s never too late to take steps to protect your eyes. If you smoke, now is the time to quit. Researchers believe that wearing sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat to block ultraviolet sunlight may delay the development of cataracts. They also recommend eating lots of green leafy vegetables, fruit and other foods packed with antioxidants.

If you are age 60 or older, you should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once every two years. If you do have a cataract, you can track its development and decide when and if you might need treatment.

Talk to your Providence health care provider about your vision and next steps to protect it.

Don’t have a primary care provider? Use our online tools to find a clinic or provider near you.

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