No one wants to add yet another malady to the list of issues to deal with as you age, but it's important to be prepared for the possibility of cataracts. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), more than half of Americans will either have a cataract or cataract surgery by the time they reach 80 years old. But what exactly are cataracts? Do they relate to simple vision loss, or is it a more serious condition? By knowing some of the common cataract symptoms, you can recognize the condition early on and seek treatment at the right time.
Much like a camera, your eyes work by focusing light through a transparent lens. That light then travels to the retina, where it's converted into nerve signals that are sent to the brain for interpretation into actual images.
That lens is primarily made of water and a very specifically arranged network of proteins. Thanks to aging or other causes, those proteins could break formation and begin to clump together. This grouping of proteins -- called a cataract -- creates a cloudy film on the lens, preventing light from freely passing through.
The primary cause of cataracts is simply age-related wear and tear on the lens. Smoking, overexposure to ultraviolet radiation, high alcohol consumption, and nutrient deficiencies have also been associated with cataracts, and diabetics have a higher chance of them, as well. Trauma to the eye, including surgery related to another eye problem, is another potential cause.
Telltale Cataract Symptoms
Cataracts make vision less sharp and may result in distinctly blurred vision. When the cataracts are small, though, they may have little or no impact on vision clarity. It's only as they grow that they start to have a definite, noticeable effect.
A cataract may even change the color of your lens, which, again, is supposed to be totally transparent. A significant cataract could potentially tint a person's vision to the point that certain colors (particularly blues and purples) become hard to identify. Night vision may also suffer, as cataracts create painful glares, or halos, around lights.
For a solid diagnosis, your doctor will perform a complete eye exam, including a vision acuity test, a dilated eye examination, and a measurement of the pressure within your eyes.
Treatment Depends on Severity
The course of treatment for a cataract will depend on the severity of the case. If the cataract has only a minor affect on your vision at first, your doctor may choose to simply adjust the prescription of your eyeglasses. If the cataract increases in size and further hampers your sight, however, surgery is a much more viable option.
There are two types of surgery typically used to correct a cataract, differing in the size of the incision and exactly how the lens is removed. Both surgeries replace your lens with an artificial, plastic lens called an intraocular lens (IOL). In some cases, other eye problems mean that an IOL cannot be used, so soft contact lenses or glasses may be needed even after the surgery.
Cataracts are so common that there's no need for alarm if you're dealing with one. Even if your case ends up requiring surgery, the NIH reports a 90 percent rate of improved vision after the operation. It's still important to take care of your eyes by wearing protective sunglasses and avoiding exposure to UV rays, but you can safely put the condition toward the bottom of your list of health-related worries.