How to protect yourself and your loved ones from cataracts:
One of the comments I often hear from patients, while we are still chatting about the main complaints and reason the patient is here for a visit, is: “I think I have cataracts!”
I realized the misconceptions are so many and it is time to set the record straight.
To understand what a cataract is we first need to take a quick look at the eye structure: Just behind the coloured part of your eye (the iris) is the lens, this lens is a soft and transparent structure that let light pass through to the nerve layer (the retina). Much like a camera lens, this lens is responsible for focusing images onto the retina, thus giving us clear vision.
Due to a couple of factors, mainly the normal ageing process, but also UV light exposure, some medical conditions like Diabetes and certain medications, like steroids (e.g. Cortisone), the Lens starts to harden.
It is also possible to be born with cataracts which can cause substantial deficiencies in the development on the visual system, so having a comprehensive eye exam is important even for children! Both eyes are normally affected, though one eye may show hardening earlier than the other. An easy metaphor for this hardening process is the hardening of the white of an egg: it is soft and transparent at first, but becomes hard and white when you bake it. In much the same way the lens tissue loses transparency and becomes cloudy as it hardens, hindering the light from passing through to the nerve layer and thus causing blurry vision.
Unfortunately there is NOTHING you can do to prevent yourself from getting cataracts. Because aging is the biggest cause for cataracts, chances are, if you live long enough – you will get cataracts. Think about wrinkles. No one wants them. And some will do everything to try and avoid getting them. But at some point, if we live long enough, we will all get wrinkles. And just like wrinkles, there is some things we can do to try and slow down the progression or even delay the onset of cataracts:
- Wear Polarized sunglasses: Not only does it help with daytime driving, giving you great quality of vision by cutting out all reflections and glare, it also cuts our UV light. I am sure you have heard about some of the damaging effect UV light has – like on skin, causing skin cancer and wrinkles. Prolonged exposure to UV light damages the front parts of our eyes, causing dry eye syndrome, pterygium and pinguecula (more on these later) but also cataracts. The UV light damage the lens tissue and leads to the hardening process.
- Wear protective glasses: In conjunction with the previous point it is important to note that should your occupation brings you in contact with UV light you should wear UV coated safety glasses.
- Stop smoking: If you are smoking, I am sure you have heard about the multitude of other disadvantages to smoking. But I am not sure that people know that smoking also affects the health and structures of your eyes, including your retina, causing Macular degeneration (more on that later) and your lens, increasing the risk and progression of cataract formation.
- Have yearly eye exams: One of the biggest misconceptions to eyesight, health and overall optometry, is: “I only need an eye test when I struggle to see.” In a comprehensive eye examination we look at your visual system and eye health in correlation to your general health. Remember to tell your optometrist about your medical history (including medication). Conditions like Diabetes can increase the rate and progression of the cataract and complicate otherwise easy procedures.