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Facts about cataracts

Cataracts are a common problem in people over 65 years of age in the United States.

More than half of Americans age 65 and older will experience cataracts, so many assume cataracts are just a sign of aging. However, children, young adults and even babies can have cataracts.

A cataract forms when the lens of the eye becomes cloudy. The lens is responsible for focusing light onto the retina. The reason for cloudiness could be due to protein changes in the lens. With nuclear cataracts, the most common kind of cataract, the inside of the lens is affected. In cortical cataracts, the outside of the lens is affected.

Cataracts grow quite slowly, meaning it can be years before they impact vision significantly. While they are often found in the elderly and progress as one ages, babies can be born with cataracts (known as congenital cataracts). Cataracts can be the result of steroid use. Also, younger adults can experience cataracts from a systemic illnesses, like diabetes. Cataracts may also form in smokers. Doctors say that not smoking can greatly reduce the risk for nuclear cataracts.

Research indicates that women are at a higher risk for cataracts than men. It could be because cataracts develop more pronounced as individuals age. Women generally live longer than men.

Symptoms of cataracts include blurred vision, dulled colors, appearance of halos around bright lights at night, and the need for brighter light when reading. Symptoms of cataracts cannot be remedied with reading glasses or other prescriptions.

The most common treatment for cataracts that cause considerable vision impairment is surgery. A cataract will be removed only if it interferes with vision enough to prevent a person from driving, reading, or doing other essential activities. A "ripe" cataract can be extracted by an eye surgeon in a routine surgery. If cataracts are present in both eyes, surgery will be performed one at a time.

The procedure is called phacoemulsification, or phaco. An eye surgeon will make a small incision into the side of the cornea. A probe is inserted where ultrasound waves will gradually break up the cloudy cataract. A suction then removes the pieces.

Recovery time varies among patients but could be a week or two. The eye will be covered with a protective wrap for a few days. Eye drops may have to be administered daily. Eventually protective sunglasses will block out bright light from the eye. One should also avoid activities that could affect the eye, such as dusty conditions, changing a litter box, bending over or doing heavy lifting, or splashing water in the eye.

Most outcomes of cataract surgery are successful. Vision is restored to at least 20/40, the acceptable level for driving.

For those experiencing vision trouble, consult with an optometrist to determine if cataracts are the cause.

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