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What are Cataracts? Your Complete Guide to Vision Loss and Prevention

Posted on June 2nd, 2021

More than 2.5 million Canadians are currently living with cataracts. A disease often associated with ageing generations, it can cause significant visual changes and in some extreme unchecked cases, vision loss. This disease is considered the second leading cause of blindness in the world. 

Cataracts are considered a slowly developing disease, caused by the hardening and yellowing (visually clouding) of one or both of the naturally clear lenses of the eye. Light is progressively prevented from reaching the retina as it is obstructed by the clouding. Most patients don’t notice visual disturbances until it becomes noticeably more difficult to see.  

There are three types of cataracts:

  1. Nuclear sclerotic cataracts are the most common and are most often age-related. This is what most people imagine when talking about cataracts: a yellowing, hardening lens. This type takes years to form, so the onset is most often slow and hard to catch.
  2. Cortical cataracts develop outside the edge of the lens, inside the lens cortex. Changes in water content cause fissures, scattering light as it enters, resulting in blurred vision. This type of cataract is often developed by those with diabetes.
  3. Posterior subcapsular cataracts develop as a small cloudy area on the back surface of the lens, forming beneath the lens capsule. This type of cataract most often develops in individuals with diabetes, extreme nearsightedness, or retinitis pigmentosa. It can develop very rapidly within months.

Cataract prevention and risk factors

In Canada, more than 350,000 cataracts surgeries are performed each year. The disease is completely treatable. However, it is important to know the factors that can increase an individual’s risk of developing cataracts.

Signs of a cataract usually become noticeable with age. Certain factors exacerbate the risk of development, but making some simple lifestyle shifts can help prevent the disease and improve eye health overall. Causes can be attributed to:

  • Diabetes (cataracts can form earlier)
  • Exposure to sun and UV rays
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Past eye injuries/inflammation
  • Eye surgery
  • Steroid medication use
  • Ageing
  • Family history of cataracts

Explaining cataracts symptoms in adults and children:

Symptoms often vary. Have you noticed that you change your eyeglass or contact lens prescription quite often?

In adults, vision changes often start slow and can be hard to catch without a regular vision exam or visits to the eye doctor. Many individuals are unaware of vision loss. These are the signs to look for as an adult:

  • dimming vision (can appear clouded)
  • yellowing or fading of colours
  • loss of night vision or noticeably increased difficulty in low light situations
  • light sensitivity and issues with glare from screens and light sources (also an increased need for brighter lights when reading at night)
  • halos around lights
  • frequent prescription changes
  • double vision in a single eye

How are children's cataracts different, and what are the symptoms? Thankfully, cataracts in children are rare. The disease may be brought on by an illness such as diabetes, arthritis, or glaucoma, or can be triggered by an eye injury or exposure to some types of radiation. A child can also be born with cataracts in one or both eyes. These are the signs to look for in a child:

  • misaligned eyes
  • a pupil that looks light when light is flashed in
  • uncontrollable eye movements that are rhythmic (these are called nystagmus)
  • signs of blurry vision or trouble seeing
  • sensitivity to bright lights or glares
  • seeing a halo, or circle around objects

How to prevent cataracts

Prevention starts with controlling and navigating the risk factors we mentioned earlier. Understanding the risks is the first step to managing the primary triggers of cataracts, which include obesity, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, and steroid medications. Untreated eye injuries and post-surgery neglect can lead to their formation and progression. It’s key not to minimize the importance of regular eye checkups  and to follow doctor recommendations and guidance.

How to reverse cataracts

Doctors are often asked whether cataracts can be permanently reversed. The answer is both yes and no. Once you start developing symptoms, there is no way to reverse them naturally without surgery. However, surgery can completely reverse and remove cataracts. The best course of action is to look at risk factors, work on prevention, and book a vision exam to ensure early detection.

What are the options for treatment?

Cataracts are easily treated. Because it usually progresses slowly, it’s often caught before it causes total vision loss. Most commonly, you'll be recommended lens correction surgery. This operation is simple, fast, and low risk.

Lens Correction Surgery

Lens correction treatment consists of using an intraocular lens implant designed to replace the natural lens within the eye. During surgery, the natural lens is broken up with ultrasound waves. The small pieces are vacuumed out gently. The new lens made of silicone or acrylic is inserted to replace your old lens. The new lenses can even be created with a prescription similar to contact lenses, helping you see clearer than ever.

Laser-Assisted Surgery

Laser-assisted surgery is the newest technological advancement in the treatment of cataracts. Your lens is mapped out by a computer that programs the laser to understand the exact location and depth of incisions needed. Lasers can also aid in softening cataracts before the ultrasound probe begins the work of removal. Most people prescribed this type of procedure have astigmatism.

What to expect post-surgery?

The expected recovery is the same for both types of cataract surgeries. Most people can see clearly almost immediately, while others see a gradual improvement in a week or two. You can expect full recovery within three months. Recovery should be considered painless, but your eye may feel itchy or you may produce more tears than normal.

Practice UV safety

Did you know that spending long periods in a car can increase the risk of cataracts?  Indoor spaces, including older homes and vehicles, may not have UV-blocking glass. When it comes to cataract prevention, UV radiation is a key risk factor and can have serious impacts on your ryes. Lens protein damage called glycation is typically what triggers cataracts. UV light can substitute for oxygen, triggering oxidative reactions in the eye cells, leading to cloudiness.

Proper eye protection like UV-coated sunglasses and minimizing eye sun exposure can be the best preventative action you can take for adults and children alike.

Technology is moving fast

The faster cataracts are diagnosed, the easier they are to treat. Part of the struggle of diagnosing this disease is its slow progression. Problems are only addressed when vision problems are perceptible.

But there is new technology, such as the HD analyzer, that can detect formation so early that eyesight may not be affected. The DH analyzer uses the power of lasers to measure how the light scatters in the retina. The delicate readings can detect microscopic changes, prompting early treatment of the disease in younger patients.

The importance of vision exams

There are some misconceptions around how often we should be scheduling eye appointments. It’s easy to forget to take care of your eyes when there doesn’t seem to be any impending issues. Ideally, people should come in every two years, but it’s especially recommended that patients between the ages of 40 and 64 make it a prioritized part of their health plan. Adults over 64 should make annual appointments.

If you notice any changes to your vision or new sensitivities, we recommend booking an eye checkup immediately. Visit us at your local FYidoctors clinic.