Joints and metabolism aren’t the only things to change as you age; your eyesight will also tend to deteriorate to a greater or lesser degree. One of the age-related eye changes that happens to most people is the development of cataracts. Although cataracts do not occur only in older adults, they affect approximately half of all Americans by age 80.
What Happens When You Get Cataracts?
As you age, the lens of your eyes may become clouded. The lens is a clear, flexible structure in the eye that changes shape to reflect light onto the retina, allowing your eye to focus light and transforming the signals received from objects into a clear, sharp image.
As you get older, the tissue forming the lens grows thicker, less flexible, and less transparent. Degeneration of the tissue causes cloudy areas to form. As light passes through the lens, these cloudy areas scatter it and distort the image you see. Many people report that having cataracts is like looking through a foggy windshield, as everything looks clouded. This can cause difficulties with reading, as well as performing other everyday activities such as driving.
Age-related cataracts are the most common, but other types, while rarer, are also seen. Cataracts are associated with eye injuries, exposure to diabetes, steroid use, smoking, radiation, and surgery for other eye conditions to name only a few. Rarely, some babies are born with congenital cataracts.
Diagnosis of Cataracts
Your eye care provider will check for cataracts routinely as part of your annual vision exam. In addition to testing your visual acuity with an eye chart to determine if you have any visual impairment, your doctor may also view your cornea, lens, and iris using a bright light to note any changes to their anatomy. If you have any small areas of clouding, they will be visible when this test is performed. Your eye care provider may also dilate your eyes and examine your lens for signs of cataracts.
In their early stages, cataracts may cause only minor inconvenience. Using brighter lights when reading or getting an anti-glare coating on your glasses for night driving may be adequate treatments in the early stages. As cataracts worsen, however, they can severely impair your vision. Eventually, your doctor may recommend cataract surgery, in which the clouded lens will be replaced with an artificial lens. As with all surgeries, cataract surgery carries some risk of bleeding or infection, but it is considered a very safe surgery that is performed millions of times a year worldwide.
Clouded vision due to cataracts can be very impairing, so it is important to monitor your eye health. An annual optometry exam will detect changes to your lens that may be early indicators of cataract development.