image by: US Army Africa
It's pretty much a fact of life that if you live long enough you will develop cataracts. But it's also pretty much a fact that you can do something about it.
There may be no nonfatal, painless medical condition more horrifying than cataracts. Slowly, the lenses of your eyes begin to cloud over, and left untreated you may be completely robbed of your vision. According to the World Health Organization, 51 percent of all blindness worldwide is due to cataracts. Although you can avoid certain behaviors that may contribute to cataract formation, medical science has come up with nothing to safeguard against them⎯nor even to slow their progress once they form.
And there's more bad news. Although estimates vary, there is general agreement that odds are you'll be affected by cataracts by the time you turn 65⎯although they can begin to form at any age. And your odds get significantly worse from there. Make it to 80, and cataracts are a near certainty.
But June is Cataract Awareness Month, and something the medical community wants you to know is that cataracts are almost fully treatable. First, though, it's worth considering what you might do to minimize your risk.
A little information about the eye may help give a clearer picture of what we're talking about. The lens of the eye is the clear part that helps to focuse light passing through to the retina, which in turn transforms that light into nerve signals and transmits them to the brain. The lens is made primarily of water and protein, with the latter arranged in such a way as to allow light to pass clean through. However, as a result of normal aging (or various medical conditions or injury) the protein molecules may begin to clump together⎯and the more they clump, the less the light is able to pass through.
According to the Mayo Clinic, not surprisingly some of the best practices likely to minimize cataract formation are the same that contribute positively to overall health. For example, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables helps with overall eye health due to the minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants they provide. And no-one will be surprised to hear that smoking and excessive alcohol consumptions has been found to increase the risk of cataracts. Doctors also speculate that reducing eye exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation with sunglasses, etc., can only be helpful.
Despite all precautions, though, cataracts are probably in your future. Cataracts form very gradually and are completely painless, so at first you may be completely unaware that you have them. Over time, however, you may find your vision beginning to cloud or blur. Colors made seem faded, perhaps taking on a brownish tint. Glare may become an increasing problem, your night vision may be impaired, and eventually you may even notice double-vision or multiple images in one eye.
Naturally, an eye exam is the best way to get a definite diagnosis, which doctors recommend at least once every two years even if you're eyes seem perfectly healthy. If your ophthalmologist does find cataracts beginning to form⎯as is highly likely if you're over 40⎯initially she may recommend no action, as the earliest stages of cataract formation are likely too small to affect your vision. Moreover, delaying cataract treatment does not affect your prognosis. In short, if it's not a problem for you, it's not a problem. And as the National Eye Institute notes, "The symptoms of early cataract may be improved with new eyeglasses, brighter lighting, anti-glare sunglasses, or magnifying lenses.
When they do become a problem, providing you've got adequate means or insurance coverage, it's not a big problem, because cataract surgery is relatively routine. Performed on an outpatient basis in under an hour, there is not particular risk beyond that which accompanies any surgery (e.g., infection), and the success rate somewhere around 98 percent.
For a variety of reasons, it's important to have your eyes checked regularly. And if one of these years your doctor tells you she's seeing cataract formation, just remember: you can only wish that every medical condition was so treatable.
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