Many of us take for granted that, when we open our eyes each morning, we'll have a pretty clear view of the world. But as we get older, we often have trouble seeing as well as we used to. By the time you're 75, there's a pretty good chance you'll develop cataracts. Having cataracts is kind of like seeing through a blurry, hazy cloud. Let's talk today about cataracts.

Normally the lens of your eye is clear. It works much like the lens on a camera. When light hits the lens, it focuses an image on the back of your eye. Until a person is around age 45, the shape of the lens is able to change. This allows the lens to focus on an object, whether it is close or far away. As we age, proteins in the lens begin to break down and the lens then becomes cloudy.

A cataract is like having a cloud pass over your lens. Only, that cloud never moves on.

Cataracts are common after the age of 60. But some people are more likely than others to get them than others; including those with diabetes, and people who smoke or who had surgery for another eye problem. You're also more likely to get cataracts if you don't wear sunglasses outside and your eyes are exposed to a lot of damaging ultraviolet light from the sun. People with a family history of cataracts are also at greater risk. And, sometimes, doctors can't even find any cause for them.

When you have a cataract, the world looks blurry or fuzzy. You have trouble making out shapes, and colors aren't as rich as usual.

You may not notice much of a change in your vision at first. For minor vision loss, you can compensate by changing your eyeglass prescription and using brighter lights to read or work. But eventually, the cataract will block more and more of your sight. And then you'll need surgery to have it removed and replaced your lens with a nice new artificial one. Often cataract surgery can restore 20/20 vision, especially in people who don't have other eye diseases.

You may be able to live with your cataracts; at least, for a while. Even if your vision isn't bothering you however, keep in touch with your eye doctor. Letting a cataract go for too long can lead to other problems, including a certain type of glaucoma. If you can't see as well as you used to, get an eye exam. To protect your eyes, treat diseases like diabetes, which can cause cataracts. And always wear a good pair of sunglasses outside to shield your eyes from the ultraviolet damage from the sun.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 11/16/2011
  • Mitchell W. Hecht, MD FACP, Internal Medicine private practice in Roswell, GA; author of the nationally-syndicated medical column 'Ask Dr. H.' Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

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