Cataracts are very common. In fact, cataracts significantly affect the vision in 20 million Americans over the age of 40. And by year 80, over 50-percent of Americans will have enough cataracts to impact their vision. While these numbers may seem scary, Dr. Joseph Dolezal at Innovations in EyeCare wants to shed some light on cataracts and explain exactly why they are so prevalent and what the best treatment options are to help you maintain your sight.
Education and awareness is the most important factor, according to Dolezal. “People confuse cataracts with other conditions,” says Dolezal. “They think that astigmatism, glaucoma and cataracts are very similar, when in reality they are quite different.”
Cataract is the clouding over of the lens inside the eye. This causes reduced vision, glare, night-vision reduction, and colors to appear less brilliant. Dolezal adds that it’s also one of the most common causes of uneven eye sight, where one eye gets worse and the other one stays fairly good.
Just a Sign of Growing Up
So why are cataracts so prevalent? “Our bodies are actually designed to form cataracts,” Dolezal explains. “I can start measuring cataracts in almost anyone over the age of 16.” The lens of the eye grows like an onion adding on a layer of tissue to its outer surface every 9- to 18-months of your entire life, he adds. So really, cataracts are a sign of growing up, not aging, and are perfectly normal.
With each new layer of lens growth, there is the opportunity to create a little bit of glare. That’s basically the purpose of cataracts – to scatter ultraviolet sunlight so there’s less chance of sunburning the retina. “If you burn the retina, it wrinkles just like sunburned skin and it causes distorted, wavy vision known as dry macular degeneration,” explains Dolezal. “Cataracts is the body’s way of preventing that from happening. So, you actually need to develop some cataracts.”
Of course, as the old adage goes, too much of a good thing can be bad. Too much cataracts, or more cataracts forming in one eye than in the other, is what leads to problems. The latter is what causes the most issues because this starts to throw off depth perception and causes falls.
When It’s Time for Treatment
“When we start seeing uneven formation of cataracts, we go after cataract surgery sooner, because the cost of cataract surgery is immensely less than the cost of hip replacement or shoulder surgery in time and discomfort to the patient,” Dolezal explains. He also says Medicare would much rather pay for cataract surgery to keep you mobile than to pay for all those injuries. It’s one of the most-used codes by Medicare for these reasons. In addition, the surgery has a 90-percent improvement rate with only a 2-4 percent complication rate.
There are a few things that can contribute to uneven cataracts development, including:
- The fluctuation of blood sugar causes more cataract development due to the way the lens of the eye responds to high sugar levels.
- Sun exposure. Ultra-violets will cook the lens proteins like a microwave and turn them slightly brown. This type is called nuclear cataracts because of the damage caused to the nucleus (center) of the lens.
- Smoking seems to cause lens proteins to denature, though Dolezal says we aren’t sure why.
- Heavy drinking. Alcohol can have the same effect when it gets into the lens of the eye.
- Anti-inflammatory medication, especially steroids. If you use a lot of them you get a higher cataracts formation rate. These medications can create a specific type of cataracts, usually in one eye, that seems to develop overnight. It clouds the very back center of the lens and vision can go from 20/20 to 20/40 in a week. This is permanent damage, Dolezal adds.
There are also instances of congenital cataracts where babies require surgery or the eye will not develop normally. This is usually caused by methamphetamines or heavy smoking or alcohol use. “You have to jump right on this, which is why we like all kids to be checked by six months old just to make sure there is nothing interfering with normal eye development,” says Dolezal. He has seen cases of child cataracts at Innovations in EyeCare.
Dolezal says that since it’s gradual, often people don’t realize they are having problems until they notice their contacts aren’t working. He recalls one patient who came in after having the cataract surgery. He asked her how things were going and she answered, “Good and bad.” When he asked what the bad was, she said “I got the cataracts removed and all the colors were great and then I looked in the mirror and saw this lady with blue hair and vivid red lipstick and she looked like Bozo the Clown.” Dolezal explains that with cataracts, you have to add blue in your hair in order to see it as white – which is why many older woman end up with bluish hair.
So, it’s definitely worth it to get your eyes checked out and, if necessary, have the cataract surgery. It could prevent accidents due to poor eyesight, as well as fashion faux pas. If you have questions about cataracts or to schedule an appointment, visit the Innovations in EyeCare’s website or call 360-736-7385.