Answers to 10 Frequently Asked Cataract Questions

According to Prevent Blindness America’s Vision Problems in the U.S. report, more than 24 million Americans age 40 and older have cataracts. By age 80, more than half of all Americans will have cataracts.

Even though they are common, cataracts can still be challenging to navigate. Progressive vision loss can be a scary and uncomfortable experience for a parent or grandparent. Arming yourself with information about cataracts is one great way to help your loved one. For instance, did you know that most cataracts can be treated with a common one-hour surgery? Keep reading for more helpful insights.

What is a cataract?
A cataract is a clouding of the eye’s natural lens, affecting vision. Cataracts can occur in one or both eyes and cannot spread from one eye to the other.

What causes cataracts?
Cataract is probably caused by changes related to aging. Throughout our lives, our bodies replace old cells with new ones. As we grow older, the old cells in our eye’s lens build up and block light as it tries to pass through. The end result is cloudy vision. Besides getting older, other factors may cause cataract to form. Eye infections, some medicines (such as steroids), injuries or exposure to intense heat or radiation may cause cataract. Too much exposure to non-visible sunlight (called UV or ultraviolet light) and various diseases, such as diabetes or metabolic disorders, may also contribute to cataracts.

What are common cataract symptoms?
Common cataract symptoms include blurred vision, double vision, poor night vision, glare, and faded colors. These may also indicate other vision problems, so always consult an eye care professional to be sure. This may result in trouble driving, reading, or recognizing faces. Poor vision may also result in an increased risk of falling and depression.

When do cataracts typically set in?
Cataracts develop slowly over time: they most commonly affect individuals over age 50, impact roughly half the population over age 65, and are present in practically everyone over age 75. As noted below, however, they are not exclusive to the elderly. Cataracts can occur among young adults or children. According to Prevent Blindness America, risk factors that may lead to getting cataracts at a younger age include:

  • Intense heat or long-term exposure to UV rays from the sun
  • Certain diseases, such as diabetes
  • Inflammation of the eye
  • Hereditary influences
  • Events before birth, such as German measles in the mother
  • Long-term steroid use
  • Severe long-term nearsightedness
  • Eye injuries
  • Eye diseases
  • Smoking

Are all cataracts the same?
Age-related cataracts are the most common type, but there are several others types of cataracts:

  • Secondary cataracts can develop as a result of eye surgery (such as for glaucoma) as well as diabetes and steroid use.
  • Congenital cataracts affect infants and may be hereditary or result from the mother having German measles or another infectious disease during pregnancy.
  • Traumatic cataracts can occur after an eye injury, even years later.
  • Radiation cataracts can result after exposure to radiation.

Are cataracts reversible?
Yes, in the early stages, anti-glare glasses, magnifying lenses, and brighter lighting all help ease the symptoms of cataracts. As a cataract grows and vision loss interferes with everyday activities-- surgery provides an effective treatment.

What is cataract surgery like?
Cataract removal is elective surgery, which means it is the patient’s choice when to undergo the procedure. Surgery is a commonly performed procedure that takes about an hour, but is a delicate operation. Yet, it is one of the safest operations done today. Every year in the U.S., more than one million cataract surgeries are performed. Cataract surgeries are performed without complication in 95 percent of cases. Fewer than 5 percent of cases have complications such as inflammation, bleeding, infection and retinal detachment. During surgery, the doctor makes an incision in the eye, which allows a laser to reach and remove the natural lens. The lens then gets replaced with a clear implant. Patients usually don’t require stitches and can go home (with a chaperone) the same day. In many cases, patients often can see well enough to resume normal activities a few days after having cataract surgery. Your vision will continue to improve over the following weeks and months. However, if you have additional eye problems, such as glaucoma, your recovery time might take longer. You, your eye doctor, and family members should decide together when and if surgery is needed. Surgery is the only proven treatment for cataracts. Simple medicines or eye drops aren’t effective.

Are there side effects of cataract surgery?
As with any surgery, infection, swelling, bleeding and pain may occur. These can usually be managed by carefully following aftercare instructions. Sometimes, a follow-up procedure may be necessary.

More seriously, cataract surgery correlates with a higher likelihood of retinal detachment, a condition that should be treated as an emergency. Common signs include a sudden increase in visual flashes or “floaters,” the little specks or cobwebs that sometimes drift across the eye.

What are the differences between cataracts and glaucoma?
Cataracts occur when proteins on the eye’s lens clump or thicken. Glaucoma, by contrast, results from damage to the optic nerve, which transmits information from the eye to the brain. Once the cells in the optic nerve become injured, they cannot be repaired. Thus, while cataracts are reversible, glaucoma is not. Early detection and prevention remain the best defense against glaucoma.

What are the differences between cataracts and macular degeneration?
Deterioration of the macula, the small, center portion of the retina that controls visual sharpness, defines age-related macular degeneration (AMD). This affects the ability to read text, recognize faces, drive, watch television, etc. AMD is not reversible, though healthy diet, exercise, and wearing UVA/UVB-protected sunglasses may help prevent it.