Cataracts are a common age-related vision problem that involves clouding of the lens in the eye. About 22 million Americans age 40 and older have cataracts. The older a person gets, the greater the risk for developing cataracts. Women are more likely to develop cataracts than men, and African-Americans and Hispanic Americans are at particularly high risk.
In addition to age, other factors may increase the risk of cataract development. These include:
During the early stages, cataracts may have little effect on vision. Symptoms vary due to the type of cataract in the eye (nuclear, cortical, or posterior subcapsular). Depending on the type and extent of the cataract, people may experience the following symptoms:
Cataracts never go away on their own, but some stop progressing after a certain point. If cataracts continue to grow and progress, they can cause blindness if left untreated. Fortunately, cataracts can almost always be successfully treated with surgery. Millions of cataract operations are performed each year in the United States, and there is a very low risk for complications. However, before opting for surgery, people need to consider on an individual basis how severely a cataract interferes with their quality of life. Cataract surgery is rarely an emergency, so people have time to consult with their doctors and carefully consider the risks and benefits of surgery.
Surgery involves removing the cataract and replacing the abnormal lens with a permanent implant called an intraocular lens (IOL). The operation takes less than 1 hour and is performed on an outpatient basis. The procedure is generally painless and most people remain awake, but sedated, during it. If you have cataracts in both eyes, doctors recommend waiting at least 1 to 2 weeks between surgeries.
A cataract is an opacity, or clouding, of the lens of the eye.
The lens of an eye is normally clear. If the lens becomes cloudy or is opacified, it is called a cataract.
The likelihood of developing cataracts increases with age. Cataracts typically develop in the following way:
Some cataracts stop progressing after a certain point, but they never go away on their own. If extensive and progressive cataracts are left untreated they can cause blindness. In fact, cataracts are the leading cause of blindness among adults age 55 and older. Fortunately, cataracts can nearly always be successfully removed with surgery, greatly improving vision.
Cataracts can form in any of three parts of the lens and are named by their location:
Most cataracts are due to age, but there are other causes as well. Doctors categorize cataracts based on their cause:
Aging is the most common cause of cataracts. Doctors are still not certain about the exact biological mechanisms that tie cataracts to aging. Oxidative stress may play a role in damaging the proteins in the lenses of the eye, and causing them to clump together.
Oxidative stress is an imbalance between oxidants and antioxidants:
One theory is that in the aging eye, barriers develop that prevent glutathione and other protective antioxidants from reaching the nucleus in the lens, thus making it vulnerable to oxidation.
Secondary cataracts refer to cataracts that result from another medical condition or medical treatment. Causes of secondary cataracts include:
Cataracts can develop from overexposure to radiation, including sunlight. A common cause of radiation cataracts is the ionizing radiation used during treatment for head and neck cancer. Cataracts are also a side effect of total body radiation treatments, which are administered for certain cancers.
Traumatic cataracts are caused by blunt or penetrating injury to the eye. This type of cataract can develop immediately after the injury or many years later.
In rare cases, a baby is born with cataracts or develops them during infancy. Causes of congenital cataracts include:
Aging is the primary risk factor for cataracts, but other factors are also involved.
Nearly everyone who lives long enough will develop cataracts to some extent. Some people develop cataracts during their middle-aged years (40s and 50s), but these cataracts tend to be very small. It is after age 60 that cataracts are most likely to affect vision. Nearly half of people age 75 and older have cataracts.
Women face a higher risk than men.
Cataracts tend to run in families.
African-Americans have nearly twice the risk of developing cataracts as Caucasians. This difference may be because African-Americans are also more likely to have diabetes, which is a risk factor for cataracts. African-Americans are much more likely to become blind from cataracts and glaucoma than Caucasians, mostly due to lack of access to medical care.
Hispanic Americans are also at increased risk for cataracts. In fact, cataracts are the leading cause of visual impairment among Hispanics.
Certain medical conditions and treatments increase the risk for cataracts:
Excessive exposure to ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation from sunlight increases the risk for cataracts. The risk may be highest among those who have significant sun exposure at a young age. People whose jobs expose them to sunlight for prolonged periods are also at increased risk.
Sunglasses or a wide-brimmed hat can help block the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Protective sunglasses do not have to be expensive but it is important that they block 99 to 100% of UV light. Polarized, mirror-coated, or blue light-blocking lenses do not protect against UV radiation.
Smoking: Smoking a pack a day of cigarettes doubles the risk of developing cataracts. Smokers are at particular risk for cataracts located in the nuclear portion of the lens. Quitting smoking can help reduce the risk, although the risk will remain higher in former smokers than those who never smoked.
Alcohol: Chronic heavy drinkers are at high risk for a number of eye disorders, including cataracts.
Nutrition: Although it is not clear how much of a role nutrition plays in age-related cataracts, there is evidence that antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables may offer some protection. The antioxidants most studied for cataract prevention are lutein and zeaxanthin, which are a type of antioxidant called carotenoids. Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in the lenses of the eyes.
Some research suggests that foods that contain these carotenoids, such as green leafy vegetables, may help slow the aging process in the eye and protect against cataracts. However, studies indicate that dietary supplements that contain lutein and zeaxanthin, or antioxidant vitamins, such as vitamin C or E, do not reduce the risks for cataract formation.
Antioxidants found in food, not supplements, appear to offer the best protection. Kale, collard greens, and spinach are the main food sources for lutein and zeaxanthin.
During the early stages, cataracts have little effect on vision. People who have small cataracts can often see well enough around the clouded areas to function normally. But as a cataract grows larger and increasingly clouds the lens, it can interfere greatly with daily activities such as reading and driving.
As a cataract progresses, symptoms may include:
This photograph shows a cloudy white lens (cataract) seen through the pupil. Cataracts are a leading cause of decreased vision in older individuals, but children may have congenital cataracts. With new surgical techniques, the cataract can be removed, a new lens implanted, and the person can usually return home the same day.
Either an ophthalmologist or an optometrist can examine people for cataracts, but only ophthalmologists are qualified to treat cataracts.
The main tests used by an eye care professional to diagnose cataracts are:
All of these tests are quick and painless.
Visual acuity tests evaluate how clearly a person can see. The Snellen eye chart is often used, with rows of letters decreasing in size:
The visual acuity test can be performed in many different ways. It is a quick way to detect vision problems and is frequently used in schools or for mass screening.
Ophthalmoscopy is performed to examine the back part of the eye (fundus), which includes the retina, optic nerve, and blood vessels. This test can help detect cataracts as well as other eye diseases such as glaucoma. The eye doctor may give you eye drops before the test to dilate (widen) the pupils of your eyes.
There are several ways that ophthalmoscopy can be performed:
Tonometry measures the pressure inside your eye. It is used to find out if glaucoma is contributing to your symptoms, although glaucoma rarely causes visual symptoms unless it is advanced. The clinician will first give you anesthetic drops to numb your eye. Next, a small device is gently pressed against your eye to measure intra-ocular (inside the eye) pressure. Eye pressure may also be evaluated in different ways such as with a hand-held electronic device or a gentle puff of air to indent the eye.
Other tests that may be used to diagnose cataracts or to determine if surgery is needed include:
Surgery is the only cure for cataracts, but it is almost never an emergency. Most cataracts cause no problem other than reducing a person's ability to see. Except for injury due to falls or unsafe driving. Usually, there is no harm in delaying surgery, except for an increased risk of injury from falls or unsafe driving. Sometimes delaying surgery will cause a moderate (easy to perform surgery on) cataract to progress to an advanced (difficult to perform surgery on) cataract. People usually have plenty of time to carefully consider options and discuss them with an ophthalmologist.
There is no constant rate at which cataracts progress:
The following measures may help manage early cataracts:
Cataract removal is one of the most common types of eye surgeries performed in the United States, especially for people over age 65. In the past, cataract surgery was not performed until the cataract had become well developed (ripe). Newer techniques, however, have made it safer and even more efficient to operate in earlier stages. Cataract surgery improves vision in up to 95% of people and prevents millions of people from going blind.
Nevertheless, some cataract surgeries that are performed may be unnecessary, or at least, premature. In general, even if cataracts are diagnosed, the decision to remove them should be based on the person's own perception of vision difficulties and the effect of vision loss on normal activity or independent living. However, since progression is often gradual and subtle, it may not be apparent how they have affected vision and your activities of daily life. Those considering cataract surgery should be made fully aware of all the potential risks and benefits of surgery.
You should ask the ophthalmologist the following questions before deciding to have cataract surgery:
If you have further questions or doubts about the procedure, you may want to get a second opinion from another ophthalmologist.
Cataracts in the Second Eye: If a person has a cataract in a second eye, the issues for decision making are the same as for the first eye. In general, surgery for a second cataract is usually performed at least 1 to 2 weeks after surgery for the first eye. Although not common, in some circumstances surgery may be performed on both eyes at the same time.
Cataracts and Glaucoma: There are various approaches to treating people who have both cataracts and glaucoma. Your doctor will recommend an approach based on your individual condition. Some options include:
Infants. Treatment of infants first depends on whether one or both eyes are affected:
Toddlers and Older Children. Intraocular lens replacement is now standard treatment for children age 2 years and older.
Cataract surgery is usually done as an outpatient procedure under local anesthesia and takes less than an hour. Preoperative preparations may include:
All cataract procedures involve removal of the cataract and replacing it with an artificial lens.
Anesthesia for Cataract Surgery
There are three methods of providing anesthesia for cataract surgery. Depending on the surgery and the patient, one or more of these techniques may be used:
Topical anesthesia involves topical drops that numb the surface of the eye, and a tiny amount of anesthetic that is injected directly into the eye at the beginning of the actual surgery. Nothing specifically blocks the nerves of the muscles that move the eye. Sedation in the form of an injection through a vein or occasionally as a pill, will help the patient hold the eye still.
In local anesthesia, a sedative injection through a vein is given, followed by injections of anesthetic around the eye to numb the eye and block the nerves to the eye muscles.
General anesthesia is the method of choice for babies, children, and adults who are not able to cooperate.
Phacoemulsification (phaco means lens; emulsification means to liquefy) is the most common cataract removal method in the United States.
The procedure generally involves the following:
Most phacoemulsification procedures take about 15 minutes, and the patient is usually out of the operating room in under an hour. There is little discomfort afterward, and complete visual recovery usually occurs within 1 to 5 days.
Phacoemulsification is sometimes combined with glaucoma surgical procedures, for people who have both glaucoma and cataracts.
Extracapsular Cataract Extraction
Extracapsular cataract extraction, the precursor to phacoemulisification, is now generally used only in people who have an extremely hard lens.
The procedure generally involves the following:
Laser Cataract Surgery
Newer technologies have been developed so that the incisions used in cataract surgery can be made with a femtosecond laser rather than a blade. (The femtosecond laser was originally developed to make the flap in LASIK surgery. It has since been modified to be useful in cataract surgery.) The laser can also soften the lens nucleus so that phacoemulsification will be easier. It still remains to be seen whether laser cataract surgery presents clear advantages over more conventional methods.
Regardless of which technique is used to remove the cataract, a lens implant is almost always inserted to correct the optics of the eye, which now has no natural lens.
With the clouded lens removed, the eye cannot focus a sharp image on the retina. A replacement lens or eyeglasses are therefore needed.
Intraocular Lenses (IOLs). An artificial lens, known as an intraocular lens (IOLs), is usually inserted after the cataract is extracted. Most IOLs are made out of acrylic, although other materials, such as silicon, are also used.
IOLs are designed to improve specific aspects of vision. In the U.S., there are currently 3 choices:
The patient and the doctor must make these decisions based on specific visual needs. Many people also need eyeglasses after cataract surgery for reading or to correct astigmatism.
Cataract surgery is one of the safest of all surgical procedures. Most complications are not serious. They can include:
Glaucoma. This is suspected when the eye pressure is elevated. If this occurs after cataract surgery, it is usually one of three forms:
Glaucoma is a disorder of the optic nerve that is usually marked by increased fluid pressure inside the eye. The increased pressure causes compression of the retina and the optic nerve which can eventually lead to nerve damage. Without treatment, glaucoma can cause partial vision loss, with blindness as a possible eventual outcome.
Preventing Infection and Reducing Swelling
The ophthalmologist may prescribe the following medications after surgery:
Factors that Increase Risk for Complications
The risks of complications are greater if you have:
Returning Home and Follow-up Visits:
Protecting the Eye
Postoperative protection of the eye typically involves the following actions:
About 15% of people who have cataract surgery develop a secondary or "after-cataract" called posterior capsular opacification. Posterior capsular opacification is a clouding of the lens capsule that was intentionally left behind, (it is used to initially hold the IOL in place) when the original cataract was removed. It generally occurs because some cells of the natural lens remain after surgery and can regrow onto the capsule.
The standard treatment for posterior capsular opacification is a type of laser surgery known as a YAG capsulotomy. (Capsulotomy means making an opening in the capsule, and YAG is an abbreviation of yttrium aluminum garnet, the laser most often used for this procedure.) This is an outpatient procedure that involves no incision and can help improve vision and reduce glare.
YAG capsulotomy involves the following:
YAG laser capsulotomy is generally a safe procedure. Serious complications are rare, but can include retinal detachment.
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Reviewed By: Franklin W. Lusby, MD, ophthalmologist, Lusby Vision Institute, La Jolla, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.