Topic updated: August 2013

Cataracts

What is a cataract?

A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects vision. Most cataracts are related to aging. Cataracts are very common in older people. By age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery.

A cataract can occur in either or both eyes. It cannot spread from one eye to the other.

What is the lens?

The lens is a clear part of the eye that helps to focus light, or an image, on the retina. The retina is the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye.

In a normal eye, light passes through the transparent lens to the retina. Once it reaches the retina, light is changed into nerve signals that are sent to the brain.

The lens must be clear for the retina to receive a sharp image. If the lens is cloudy from a cataract, the image you see will be blurred.

Are there other types of cataract?

Yes. Although most cataracts are related to aging, there are other types of cataract:

  1. Secondary cataract. Cataracts can form after surgery for other eye problems, such as glaucoma. Cataracts also can develop in people who have other health problems, such as diabetes. Cataracts are sometimes linked to steroid use.
  2. Traumatic cataract. Cataracts can develop after an eye injury, sometimes years later.
  3. Congenital cataract. Some babies are born with cataracts or develop them in childhood, often in both eyes. These cataracts may be so small that they do not affect vision. If they do, the lenses may need to be removed.
  4. Radiation cataract. Cataracts can develop after exposure to some types of radiation.

What causes cataracts?

The lens lies behind the iris and the pupil. It works much like a camera lens. It focuses light onto the retina at the back of the eye, where an image is recorded. The lens also adjusts the eye's focus, letting us see things clearly both up close and far away. The lens is made of mostly water and protein. The protein is arranged in a precise way that keeps the lens clear and lets light pass through it.

But as we age, some of the protein may clump together and start to cloud a small area of the lens. This is a cataract. Over time, the cataract may grow larger and cloud more of the lens, making it harder to see.

Researchers suspect that there are several causes of cataract, such as smoking and diabetes. Or, it may be that the protein in the lens just changes from the wear and tear it takes over the years.

How can cataracts affect my vision?

Age-related cataracts can affect your vision in two ways:

  1. Clumps of protein reduce the sharpness of the image reaching the retina.

    The lens consists mostly of water and protein. When the protein clumps up, it clouds the lens and reduces the light that reaches the retina. The clouding may become severe enough to cause blurred vision. Most age-related cataracts develop from protein clumpings.

    When a cataract is small, the cloudiness affects only a small part of the lens. You may not notice any changes in your vision. Cataracts tend to "grow" slowly, so vision gets worse gradually. Over time, the cloudy area in the lens may get larger, and the cataract may increase in size. Seeing may become more difficult. Your vision may get duller or blurrier.

  2. The clear lens slowly changes to a yellowish/brownish color, adding a brownish tint to vision.

    As the clear lens slowly colors with age, your vision gradually may acquire a brownish shade. At first, the amount of tinting may be small and may not cause a vision problem. Over time, increased tinting may make it more difficult to read and perform other routine activities. This gradual change in the amount of tinting does not affect the sharpness of the image transmitted to the retina.

    If you have advanced lens discoloration, you may not be able to identify blues and purples. You may be wearing what you believe to be a pair of black socks, only to find out from friends that you are wearing purple socks.

When are you most likely to have a cataract?

The term "age-related" is a little misleading. You don't have to be a senior citizen to get this type of cataract. In fact, people can have an age-related cataract in their 40s and 50s. But during middle age, most cataracts are small and do not affect vision. It is after age 60 that most cataracts steal vision.

Who is at risk for cataract?

The risk of cataract increases as you get older. Other risk factors for cataract include:

  • Certain diseases such as diabetes.
  • Personal behavior such as smoking and alcohol use.
  • The environment such as prolonged exposure to sunlight.

What can I do to protect my vision?

Wearing sunglasses and a hat with a brim to block ultraviolet sunlight may help to delay cataract. If you smoke, stop. Researchers also believe good nutrition can help reduce the risk of age-related cataract. They recommend eating green leafy vegetables, fruit, and other foods with antioxidants.

If you are age 60 or older, you should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once every two years. In addition to cataract, your eye care professional can check for signs of age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, and other vision disorders. Early treatment for many eye diseases may save your sight.

What are the symptoms of a cataract?

The most common symptoms of a cataract are:

  • Cloudy or blurry vision.
  • Colors seem faded.
  • Glare. Headlights, lamps, or sunlight may appear too bright. A halo may appear around lights.
  • Poor night vision.
  • Double vision or multiple images in one eye. (This symptom may clear as the cataract gets larger.)
  • Frequent prescription changes in your eyeglasses or contact lenses.
  • These symptoms also can be a sign of other eye problems. If you have any of these symptoms, check with your eye care professional.

How is a cataract detected?

Cataract is detected through a comprehensive eye exam that includes:

  1. Visual acuity test. This eye chart test measures how well you see at various distances.
  2. Dilated eye exam. Drops are placed in your eyes to widen, or dilate, the pupils. Your eye care professional uses a special magnifying lens to examine your retina and optic nerve for signs of damage and other eye problems. After the exam, your close-up vision may remain blurred for several hours.
  3. Tonometry. An instrument measures the pressure inside the eye. Numbing drops may be applied to your eye for this test.

Your eye care professional also may do other tests to learn more about the structure and health of your eye.

Read the rest of this article (including treatment information) from the National Eye Institute.

Closeup of the human eye

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