Keeping an Eye Out
The leading cause of blindness worldwide as well as vision loss in the United States is cataracts. The process that occurs causes increasing cloudiness in the eye’s lens. There are several reasons to develop cataracts and can be present anytime from birth to old age.
An estimated 20.5 million (17.2%) Americans aged 40 years and older have cataract in one or both eyes, and 6.1 million (5.1%) have had their lens removed operatively. The total number of people who have cataracts is estimated to be over 30 million currently. Although treatment for the removal of cataract is widely available, access barriers such as insurance coverage, treatment costs, patient choice, or lack of awareness prevent many people from receiving the proper treatment.
In the early stages of development, you may not even be aware of it. Early cataracts may only be seen with a dilated eye exam from your ophthalmologist. As symptoms develop, there may become a blurriness to vision acuity, or colors may appear faded or dull. There may be difficulty with day-to-day tasks that require visual scrutiny like reading, driving, or watching TV.
The most common reason for cataracts is age related. As the eye ages, the transparency of the lens may begin to cloud as a natural course of maturity. Other reasons may include a response to trauma or possibly a result of surgery to the eye, as may be needed to treat glaucoma. As well, those using long term oral and inhaled steroids may be at risk. Additional considerations include increased likelihood to those who have diabetes, smoke, or drink too much alcohol.
Although uncommon, children can get cataracts too. Those who are born with them have congenital cataracts. There is usually a family history of same for those individuals. As with adults, a history of trauma or infection may also be reasons for cataracts. Small cataracts may not pose a significant problem and may just be monitored. If there is any compromise to vision, however, cataracts should be treated as soon as possible. The development of lazy eye (amblyopia) is a very real problem.
Those exposed to radiation are another risk population. We would usually think of those in the medical field who are involved with x-ray or radiologic guided procedures in surgery. But all of us are exposed to sunlight, especially in the Southwest. The ultraviolet radiation from the sun is the source of the risk. The best protection is to wear UV shielding sunglasses routinely to lessen the possibility of cataracts.
The cure for cataracts is always surgery. This very safe and common procedure done with a topical anesthetic and lasts about an hour. The clouding natural lens is replaced with an artificial lens, called an intraocular lens. There is the possibility of developing a “secondary” cataract which is a cloudiness on the outside of the lens. This problem is treated with a quick and easy repair using a laser.
As with routine wellness visits to your health care provider, annual eye exams with your ophthalmologist or optometrist are strongly encouraged.
Bradford Croft, DO
East Flagstaff Family Medicine