Are cataracts an inevitable part of aging?

By The Health News Team | May 20, 2021
Close up of a woman's eye.

As we age, our bodies change. From the lines that appear on our faces to the increased aches and pains in our muscles and joints, aging can take a toll on our physical health. Unfortunately, our eyes are not immune to the passage of time.

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, adults will likely begin to see changes in their vision around the age of 40. Problems seeing clearly at close distances, the appearance of tiny spots or specks across the field of vision, and reduced or increased tear production are common age-related eye changes. So too is the development of cataracts, a clouding of the natural lens of the eye.

“By age 65, 90% of individuals have some level of cataracts,” says Dr. Gayle Howard, an ophthalmologist affiliated with Sharp Community Medical Group. “With our rapidly aging population, the prevalence of cataracts is expected to double by 2050 from our current levels.”

The causes and common symptoms of cataracts

While most cataracts are associated with aging and sun or UV exposure, Dr. Howard reports that they can also be related to eye trauma, diabetes and exposure to toxic chemicals or radiation. Certain lifestyle factors, such as diet, smoking cigarettes and consuming alcohol, also contribute to the development of cataracts.

Therefore, according to Dr. Howard, making healthier lifestyle choices may help slow the progression of cataracts. To improve overall health and eye health, Dr. Howard recommends people:

  • Refrain from smoking and seek help quitting, if needed.

  • Drink alcohol in moderation.

  • Maintain a healthy weight through regular exercise and eating a healthy, well-balanced diet high in fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grains and antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E.

  • Protect the eyes from damaging UV rays by wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses with UVA/UVB protection.

The most common symptom of cataracts is vision blurriness, usually at a distance and most noticeable during activities such as driving, watching TV and recognizing people from afar. However, reading can also be affected, and some cataracts are associated with sensitivity to light, affecting vision while doing things such as driving at night or when in stores with bright fluorescent lighting. A less-recognized symptom, which usually becomes obvious after a cataract is removed, is a dulling of color vision.

“We often say, ‘You are looking at your high-definition TV with low-definition eyes if you have a cataract,” Dr. Howard says. “The time to fix a cataract is when a person is having difficulties with their normal daily activities and wants better vision.”

How cataracts are corrected

Cataracts are corrected by surgical removal, and more than 2 million cataract surgeries are performed in the U.S. every year. It is a brief outpatient procedure — usually lasting just 10 to 15 minutes — in which a small, permanent, artificial lens is placed into the same wrapper, or capsule, in the eye that was holding the cataract. Vision recovery is often rapid, occurring within a few days after surgery.

According to Dr. Howard, cataract surgery is often the best time to try to improve someone’s vision as well as decrease their dependence on glasses. The artificial lens or intraocular lens (IOL) that is implanted during cataract surgery is specific to each eye and contains a prescription vision correction that is determined by eye measurements.

Most IOLs are used to correct one location of vision, either distance or reading vision, and glasses may be needed after surgery to help with other areas of vision or if a person has astigmatism. However, special IOLs are available that can correct more than one location of vision — such as distance, computer or reading — as well as allow for some blended vision or correct astigmatism.

“Helping people with their cataracts is one of the most fulfilling parts of our profession,” Dr. Howard says. “We are very grateful for and proud of our abilities to help patients recover their vision with this procedure.”

Learn about eye and vision care services at Sharp.

Get the best of Sharp Health News in your inbox

Our weekly email brings you the latest health tips, recipes and stories.