Cataracts are a part of life, they come along part and parcel with the white hairs and wrinkles. A cataract is an opacity or haze that develops in the crystalline lens of the eye, which sits just behind the coloured iris at the front of the eyeball. The clouding of this lens causes the typical cataract symptoms of blurry vision, increased glare sensitivity, and reduced contrast sensitivity. Though the idea of a cataract causes anxiety for some, in Australia we have easy access to a high standard of care with cataract surgery via both the private and public systems.
So, what causes cataracts?
Topping the list of cataract causes is age. As mentioned before, cataracts are a part of life simply because they come naturally with age. This makes cataract surgery one of the most commonly performed procedures in a developed society. The underlying mechanism behind increasing age as it causes cataracts is not fully understood. Doctors believe there to be a contribution from cumulative UV exposure over an individual’s lifetime, which causes oxidative damage to the lens. The crystalline lens also continuously grows more lens fibres with age, which may cause the inner fibres to become compacted and lose their transparency.
Age-related UV exposure isn’t the only situation that causes cataracts. Studies have found that groups of people who are exposed to high amounts of sunlight and UV, especially at a younger age, have a higher risk of cataracts. This includes those who work outdoors or those who live in countries with a lot of sun, such as equatorial regions. Because of this, wearing sun protection for the eyes such as a hat and sunglasses can reduce your need for cataract surgery.
Smoking is also known as one of the causes of cataracts in addition to being responsible for contributing to other blinding eye conditions such as age-related macular degeneration. Studies have shown the risk of a smoker developing a cataract and needing cataract surgery is twice as high as someone who has never smoked. Fortunately, quitting smoking can help to lower your risk of developing cataract symptoms, but as this risk is still higher compared to someone who has never smoked, it’s better to have never smoked in the first place.
Also on the list of cataract causes is diabetes. Also known as a “sugar cataract”, experts estimate about 4% of all cataracts are due to diabetes. The elevated blood glucose concentration affects the water content of the lens in the eye, causing the fibres to degenerate and opacify. People with diabetes are thought to be at a 60% greater risk of developing cataracts.
The use of steroid medications can increase the risk of developing cataract symptoms and requiring early cataract surgery. This applies to both systemic and topical steroids, including inhaled steroids, such as those for asthma. The higher the dose and the longer the treatment, the increased likelihood of experiencing a steroid-induced cataract.
Trauma to the eye, such as a hit to the eye or an electric shock can cause cataracts, as can inflammatory eye diseases such as uveitis. Eye trauma may also include certain eye operations. The procedure of treating a retinal detachment will often induce a cataract, which must then be treated with cataract surgery after the retinal detachment has been managed.
Other cataract causes include health issues such as obesity and hypertension. When the body is overweight, the excess fat tissue releases a chemical known as leptin that induces oxidative stress on the eye, which can result in opacification of the lens fibres. Although it’s not fully understood how hypertension causes cataracts, it thought that elevated blood pressure can increase inflammation in the body, which in turn exacerbates cataract formation and increases the risk of requiring cataract surgery.
Several studies have linked alcohol consumption with the development of a cataract. It has been found that the higher the alcohol intake, the greater the risk of age-related cataracts. However, studies have also noted that moderate alcohol consumption, defined as less than 20g of alcohol per day, may in fact have a protective effect on developing cataracts.
A Word on Cataract Surgery
Early symptoms of a cataract usually do not need immediate cataract surgery. Many people are able to work around their cataract symptoms with simple solutions, such as using a bright lamp for sewing or reading a book, or reducing the screen brightness on their digital devices to alleviate glare.
Cataract surgery in Australia is a safe procedure with a high success rate. Your optometrist or ophthalmologist is the best person to discuss with you when you might be ready for cataract surgery – if you’ve just been diagnosed with cataracts this is likely to be not for years. In some cases, you may be advised to proceed with surgery sooner, such as if the delay in removing your cataracts is likely to put your eyes at risk of developing another problem or if you no longer meet the vision requirements for holding a driver’s license.
After your cataracts are removed in a quick day-procedure, you will find your vision is significantly clearer, possibly even restored to the clarity you once had years ago.
Note: Any surgical or invasive procedure carries risks. Before proceeding, you should seek a second opinion from an appropriately qualified health practitioner.