"Blow winds, and crack your cheeks!" That's from Shakespeare's King Lear. He wasn't asking to go blind but just describing what "cataract" meant back then: a massive waterfall.
This is fitting because the vision problems you get from cataracts are very much like looking through the white foam created by a fast-running waterfall. If you have a cataract, it means the lens inside your eye has started to turn cloudy. If you live to be eighty years old, you will have a high chance of developing a cataract in at least one of your eyes, maybe both. If you make it all the way to 95, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the great San Francisco poet and book dealer said, ‘you will have a cataract for sure, but that's a low price to pay for living such a long and prosperous life.’
So what is a cataract, precisely? To answer that question, let's look at the human eye first.
A cataract is what happens when the transparent lens you were born with starts to coagulate and turn cloudy. Your lens is right behind your pupil. It is an actual physical lens; it bends the light that reaches your retina in a way that you can see clearly. If your eye's lens is going to do the job, it has to be transparent; otherwise, the light won't reach your retina, and you won't see that well, or at all.
That's what a cataract is. Your eye's lens becomes too stiff and coagulates. It's like the way in which your fried egg's white becomes milky white instead of remaining transparent. It's called oxidative stress or protein denaturalisation. It feels like you’re looking through a dirty car windscreen that you can’t quite wipe clean.
Let's see how that happens.
The eye's lens is made up of water and proteins. As we get older, the proteins in your lens clump together because of oxidative stress. It makes the lens go cloudy and you start seeing halos, intense light becomes bothersome, and you generally don't see that well anymore.
Oxidative stress is the primary cause for cataracts (from natural aging and/or lousy nutrition, in simple terms) but some people with diabetes and steroid users are at higher risk even if they're not that old. And, yes, those old curses, like smoking- will put you at a higher risk of developing cataracts earlier in life as well.
Rarely, babies can be born with cataracts, or sometimes children can develop cataract after traumatic eye accidents. It's all about oxidative stress.
So what are the symptoms? Your vision is cloudy or blurry. Colours fade away. When you’re driving, car headlights bother you more than usual. And you’re beginning to avoid driving at night.
If you wear prescription glasses, it might seem like your glasses lens is scratched or dirty, but it isn’t really. There is actually nothing wrong with your glasses, it is your own eye’s cloudy lens, your cataract that is, which is causing this feeling. If you need your prescription glasses revised too often (more than twice a year), this can also be a sign you are developing cataracts.
If you’re older than sixty, and you notice any of these symptoms, go to your optometrist and have a thorough eye exam. Remember, that even if you’re a healthy person, you should still visit your optometrist at least every 2 years.
Now let's assume you do have a cataract. Some cataracts do not ‘grow’ or get worse – at all. But other cataracts do ‘grow’ and will interfere with your everyday activities. The good news is they are treatable with surgery. Your optometrist may refer you to an ophthalmologist for cataract surgery.
You can see more information about cataracts here, in this infographic.
If you have not developed cataract you can do your best to prevent them. You can do this by not smoking, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and diet, wearing sunglasses and seeing your optometrist regularly. If you have children or grandchildren, encourage them get into the habit of wearing sunglasses or wide-brim hats from a young age.
And click here to find an optometrist near you.