It would be more relaxing and pleasant to focus this article on the other meaning of cataract – waterfall – but this month I’ll be talking about the kind that is in your eyes and makes it hard to see. Not so good for driving a truck when you can’t see, right? Cataracts can sneak up on you, so you may not even realize your eyes and vision are changing.
What is a cataract? The part behind the iris (colored part) of our eyes is called the lens. As people age or have certain health conditions, the normally-clear lens can develop cloudy spots, causing us to have visual problems. As the cataract grows, vision becomes worse. Cataracts affect more than 50% of Americans over the age of 65 and can start as early as age 40 – they are a leading cause of blindness in the world. Fortunately, for us who live in the United States, surgery is readily available, for those who need it, to prevent vision loss.
There are several things that put you at risk for developing cataracts – the simple act of aging is one of them. Exposure to sunlight (not using any sunglasses or the right sunglasses), taking steroid medications for long periods of time (people with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis might take them), diabetes and smoking are some of the risk factors for developing cataracts. Some babies are born with cataracts as a result of an infection.
Since cataracts form slowly over time, the changes can be very subtle. For example, you might think that they forgot to put the non-glare coating on your glasses, like I did! If you are noticing halos and splaying of lights at night, sensitivity to light or more difficulty seeing at night, it might be a cataract. Because cataract development is a slow process, you cannot see a cataract with the naked eye until it is very large. Ophthalmologists have special instruments they use to see a cataract, when it is still not obvious to you or others. Blurry or dim vision, double vision in one eye, faded colors, having to change your eyeglasses more frequently – these can all be signs of cataracts. A person may even have cataracts in both eyes, which can grow at different rates. Happily, cataracts are not painful. If you experience sudden pain in your eyes, you should see an ophthalmologist (eye specialist) immediately.
There is only one cure for cataracts – removing the damaged lens and replacing it with a new artificial lens. The decision to have surgery depends on how much difficulty a person has with their vision. So, even if your eye doctor were to tell you that you have cataracts, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that you would have to have them removed immediately. The DOT says your vision has to be at least 20/40 (20/20 is better) in order to drive, so if it is worse and cannot be corrected with eyeglasses, surgery is something you would need to consider. Some people would rather wait until they just can’t stand it anymore, while others would like to get it done and over with immediately.
The nice thing (if there is a “nice” thing about surgery) is that many people who have to wear eyeglasses can stop wearing them for many years, if not forever, by having the cataract(s) removed. Some people who wear glasses for distance and close vision might only need reading glasses after surgery. The surgery is now a one-day procedure, in most cases, so you are not spending time in a hospital bed, if all goes as planned. The downside to it is that not all types of lens implants are covered by insurance, and you might have to pay out-of-pocket for the part that isn’t covered (this can run a few thousand dollars). There are several options your ophthalmologist would discuss with you regarding the risks and benefits of each type. And, if you have cataracts in both eyes, the surgeries can take place a couple of weeks apart.
What can you do if you don’t have insurance or your plan doesn’t cover cataract surgery? Visit www.missioncataractusa.org or call (559) 797-1629. Mission Cataract USA offers free cataract surgery to people of all ages who have no means to pay. Thanks to the dream of one eye surgeon in Fresno, California, one day a year, on Mission Cataract Day, hundreds of people throughout the United States are given the gift of sight at no cost to them or to Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance.
What can you do to help prevent cataracts if you don’t already have them? Using those funky old-people wrap-around style of sunglasses can help protect your eyes from cataracts, especially if you are fair-skinned/blue-eyed. If you wear ordinary sunglasses, the sun can sneak in around the sides and still cause harm. Limiting alcohol intake to moderate or low levels helps (moderate intake is two drinks/day for men and one drink/day for women). If you are not overweight, keep it that way! Some studies show that obesity is connected to cataract formation. Unfortunately, losing weight once you’ve been obese doesn’t seem to improve your cataract situation, so preventing obesity is preventing not only cataracts but a host of other health disorders. If you smoke, quit. Easy for me to say, but after smoking two packs a day for ten years, I know it’s possible to quit.
If you are getting close to 60-years-old, you should start having an annual eye exam. If you are having any of the symptoms I mentioned above, get your eyes checked. Better to know what’s going on now so you can roll on down the road, toward the future, with happy and healthy eyes!