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Eye without cataract

Figure 1 – This is a properly-functioning eye with no cataract. Light enters the eye and focuses cleanly on the retina for good vision.

Cataracts are a common affliction affecting eye health and vision. What is a cataract? What causes a cataract? The doctors at Vista Eye Care like to promote eye disease awareness, so let’s take this opportunity to examine what cataracts are and how they can be prevented.

The general rule with cataracts is that if a patient lives long enough, they will get one. Some patients are born with cataracts (congenital cataracts), while most develop cataracts later in life. Sometimes cataracts develop in young adults, but typically cataracts are identified in the 6th or 7th decade.

Eye with mild cataract

Figure 2 – This eye has a partial cataract, or early-stage cataract that degrades the quality of vision. This eye may or may not be a good candidate for cataract surgery yet.

To understand what a cataract is, we need to examine the structure in which cataracts form. The crystalline lens is made up of dense tissue and is located just behind the iris and pupil. In healthy eyes, the lens doesn’t look like much because it is transparent. The job of the lens is to take light that enters the eye, and carefully focus that light onto the retina (See Figure 1). When this clear tissue starts to yellow, or get foggy, vision starts being compromised (See Figure 2). A complete cataract essentially prevents any useful focusing of light, and leaves that eye unable to see (See Figure 3).

Eye with significant cataract

Figure 3 – Complete cataract. The cataract in this eye is advanced enough that it prevents any focusing of light on the retina.

In their earliest stages, cataracts start affecting a patient’s comfort when driving at night. Patients notice more halos around objects, and more glare from oncoming headlights and streetlights. When cataracts continue to progress, visual clarity is compromised, and reduced vision results (See Figure 4). Now, an eye that used to see 20/20, may be stuck at 20/30 or 20/40. At the point when a patient’s daily activities are compromised, cataract surgery is an option. Cataract surgery removes the natural, foggy lens with the cataract, and replaces it with a plastic lens. The result can be a return to good vision. While cataract surgery can be a fantastic option, it is not without its risks and generally cataract surgery is utilized only when vision is significantly compromised.

View with and without a cataract is simulated here

Figure 4 – The top image is a simulated view of an eye without a cataract. The bottom image is degraded by the presence of a simulated cataract.

What causes cataracts? The simple answer is oxidation of the lens tissue. The general cause of cataracts is ultraviolet light exposure. The more sunlight your lens absorbs, the more compromised the clarity of the lens will be. Other causes of cataracts include diabetes, smoking, congenital abnormalities, certain medications, or trauma and injury.

The key to cataract prevention is to keep ultraviolet light out of your eyes. Sunlight is damaging, and at altitude here in Thornton, Colorado there is more ultraviolet light present than at sea level. Couple that with the fact that we have so many sunny days, and you can see why the risk factor for cataracts is high. Ultraviolet light also causes macular degeneration, so wearing sun protection is truly important for patients of all ages. Getting antioxidants into your diet is also important. Our optometrists recommend a diet high in green, leafy vegetables. Oh, and if you smoke, please take steps to stop.

Our eye doctors recommend yearly eye and vision examinations for all of our patients. We recommend a child’s first eye exam at 6-12 months of age to check for congenital cataracts. An educated patient can help prevent early cataract formation, though when a cataract is present, our optometrists can monitor it and check for when it is appropriate to consider surgery. Call our office today at (303) 450-2020 to schedule your annual eye and vision check-up!

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