Cataract: The Aging of the Lens

A cataract is an opacity or clouding which is present in the normal crystalline lens of the eye.  It is a common eye condition that many people will develop during their lifetime.  Cataracts are one the world’s leading causes of progressive visual loss and can go undetected for many years.  Vision decline from cataracts typically develops later in life and cannot be corrected with glasses or contact lenses.   When the cataract gets to a certain density or irregularity, it can impact a person's quality of life by making it difficult to see.  This is usually a gradual process so a patient doesn't always recognize that their vision is failing. 

Most people will develop cataracts in the course of their lifetime.  This is the normal course of aging of the native lens in the eye.  Once a person has been diagnosed with a cataract, the next step is investigating the various treatment options.  Currently there are no medications, special diets, dietary supplements, or exercise programs which will improve or reduce the progression of a person’s cataract development. 

It is now believed that cigarette smoking can accelerate cataract development.  Thus, a program to eliminate cigarette smoking is recommended to slow cataract growth and to improve overall general health.  Ultraviolet radiation exposure from the sun over the course of a person’s lifetime has also been demonstrated to contribute to cataract development.  Utilizing ultraviolet protection in sunglasses and eyeglasses throughout life is another way to reduce the progression of cataracts.  If a person lives long enough, he or she will develop lens opacities despite the best preventative measures.  Currently the only way to treat a cataract and improve a person’s vision is by removing it with surgery.

Cataract surgery is one of the most commonly performed surgical procedures in the world.  In the past 20 years, the surgical techniques for cataract surgery have dramatically improved.  A patient that underwent cataract surgery in the past may have been admitted to the hospital and had to lie flat in a certain position with sandbags in bed postoperatively.  Cataract surgery done today is performed on an outpatient basis with minimal disruption to a person’s life.  Patients can return to work and their daily activities almost immediately after surgery.  The duration of surgery has also been markedly reduced, and currently most cataract surgery can be performed in less than 15 minutes time from start to finish.

Cataracts are not a dangerous condition, but they can lead to significant visual loss if not treated appropriately.  With modern techniques, cataract surgery has become a very successful way to manage cataracts.  There has been a remarkable revolution in the past few decades with advancements in both surgical techniques, intraocular lens technology, and instrumentation.  This has led to dramatic improvements in patients’ outcomes, earlier restoration of patients’ sight, and enhancement of the quality of patients’ lives.

The best way to find out if you or a loved one is developing cataracts is have a comprehensive eye examination.  It is important to see your eye care provider yearly to evaluate for this condition and any others that can develop over time.