Understanding Cataracts

What are Cataracts?

After passing the age of 60 (or earlier in many cases), it’s common to develop cataracts, which can affect one or both eyes. Developing gradually over time, cataracts can cause your eyesight to become distorted in a number of ways, even if you’ve had perfect vision all of your life – but what are they and how are they treated?

Cataracts begin to develop in the lens inside your eye. When your eyes are healthy, the lens looks like a clear, transparent disc which allows light to shine through to the back of the eye, like a clean window.

With age, your lens can build up proteins over time and develop cloudy patches. These patches are cataracts, which grow denser with time, making it more difficult for light to get through the lens, like a frosted window.

Cataracts are very small so you might struggle to see them yourselves in the mirror but your eye doctor will have specialised equipment to properly diagnose the condition.

Cataract symptoms

Because a cataract can build up slowly over the years, you may not even notice the effect it has on your vision. Fortunately, your optometrist can help you detect a cataract early through standard eye and retinal examinations. As cataracts tend to get denser over time, it’s important to go for regular eye examinations, especially after passing the age of 60.

If you develop a cataract, you might notice some, or many of the signs of cataracts discussed below.

  • Cloudy or blurry vision

    A cataract can make your eyes more sensitive to light. You may notice that indoor lights seem too bright and you may have trouble seeing in bright sunlight.

  • Trouble seeing at night

    As a cataract gets worse, it will block more light from reaching the retina. This makes it harder to see and drive at night. You may also need more light for indoor activities such as reading.

  • Halos around lights

    Cataracts can cause the impression of glare around streetlights and traffic lights, making it more difficult to drive at night time.

  • Fading or yellowing of colours

    At first, colours may appear faded. Your vision may also start to have a yellow-ish brown tinge. This is gradual at first but may eventually get to the point where you may have trouble telling the difference between black, blue, and purple.

  • Double vision

    After a cataract has clouded the eye’s natural lens, light rays might reflect in different directions. This can cause the appearance of multiple images, especially when you are looking at lights. This can occur even when you only have one eye open.

  • Frequent changes to eyeglass or contact lens prescription

    If you have a cataract, you might have needed to change your prescription more frequently – in some cases, you might even notice an improvement in your near vision and may no longer need reading glasses for a while. This is sometimes called second sight and usually goes away as the cataract gets worse, but in some cases will continue to change.

Cataract causes

It’s still unclear what causes cataracts and why protein builds up inside the eye’s lens over time. However, research has revealed there are common risk factors associated with cataracts, meaning that some people have more chance of developing them at some point in their life. Age is the most commonly associated risk factor, though it is possible to develop cataracts for other reasons.

Congenital cataracts can affect new-born babies, usually due to injury or infection whilst inside the womb. Cataracts can also be developed during childhood, though this is similarly rare.

Pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes can cause secondary cataracts - a different form of cataract that is onset by toxic substances, UV light or radiation. After injury, cataracts also may develop in the eye, regardless of age and these are referred to as traumatic cataracts.

Cataracts development can be more prevalent in the following cases:

  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Family history
  • Prolonged use of corticosteroid medications
  • Short sightedness
  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Hormone replacement therapy
  • Hypertension

Cataracts are a natural part of the aging process in most cases. However, if you are worried about developing cataracts or would like more information about how to prevent them, speak to your optometrist or eye doctor.

Cataract treatment

The only way to treat cataracts is through cataract surgery, though this is usually a very quick procedure, taking as little as 20 minutes for each eye treated. The surgeon removes the natural cloudy lens and replaces it with an artificial, intraocular lens (IOL) which should last you for the rest of your life.