Cataracts – What are they? How do I know if I have them?

Picture of Dr. Jaskirn Gill

Dr. Jaskirn Gill

If you are over the age of 65, you likely have friends who have had, or are on the wait list for cataract surgery. Talk to someone who has had the surgery, and there’s a good chance they will tell you how happy they are with the results of the procedure. Before deciding on surgery though, it is important to understand what cataracts are, how they can impact your daily life, and the benefits of their removal.

What is a Cataract?
The natural lens of the eye is located behind the iris, the coloured part of the eye. The lens focuses light on the retina, which then sends a signal via the optic nerve to the brain, where an image is instantly processed. For light to cleanly pass to the back of the eye, the lens must be clear. Over time, protein fibres in the lens begin to break down and clump together, causing a loss in transparency. In their early stages, cataracts typically do not result in any noticeable vision changes. Gradually, as the lens continues to cloud, light will start to scatter as it enters the eye, and cause significant glare.

What are the Symptoms of Cataracts?
Early signs of cataracts are often first noted by your optometrist or ophthalmologist and may begin to appear in your late 50’s to early 60’s. As the cataracts progress, one will often experience several of the symptoms noted below:

  • Blurred or hazy vision
  • Reduced intensity of colours
  • Increased sensitivity to glare from lights, especially with night time driving
  • Increased difficulty seeing at night
  • Changes in the eye’s refractive error (glasses prescription)

What Causes Cataracts?
The most common cause of cataracts is age. Other contributing factors include:

  • Diabetes
  • Prolonged use of corticosteroids
  • Unprotected exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation
  • Smoking
  • Nutritional deficiency –
  • Research studies indicate that antioxidant properties of Vitamins C and E, lutein, and zeaxanthin may help slow the progression of cataracts

Cataracts may also develop following an eye injury or surgery for other ocular conditions, such as glaucoma or a retinal detachment.

What are the Treatment Options for Cataracts?
The treatment and management of cataracts is based on the severity of visual impairment. If cataracts are affecting vision minimally, your eyecare professional will likely just monitor their status on a yearly or more frequent basis. Updating your glasses prescription can often initially improve vision during the early stages of cataracts. Additionally, anti-glare coatings on lenses can help reduce glare experienced during night driving. When the cataract is more advanced, and your ability to drive or perform other tasks becomes impacted, surgery will be recommended. Your optometrist will refer you to an ophthalmologist for a cataract consultation.

Cataract surgery is an outpatient procedure, involving local anesthesia, performed by an ophthalmologist. The procedure is done one eye at a time; most commonly, the eye with the most advanced cataract is operated on first.

Cataract is one of the most universally recognized eye problems, but is often misunderstood. Mentioning the word “cataract” sometimes evokes looks of shock and fear in my patients. It is not a disease, but simply a natural aging process, like wrinkles on your skin. Luckily, cataracts are easily diagnosed, and surgery generally offers a quick and safe fix.

If you would like more information on cataracts, or suspect they may be affecting your vision, please schedule an appointment with one of our doctors, and they will be happy to answer any of your questions.