Cause, treatment and prevention
30 August 2023
Let's dive into the world of cataracts – an eye condition that’s the leading cause of blindness in adults worldwide and the focus of some of the legendary work of the Fred Hollows Foundation.
What is a cataract?
The origin of the word cataract comes from the Greek word ‘katarrhaktēs’ meaning ‘waterfall’. People noticed a milky fluid flowing from the eyes of those affected and the flow of this liquid resembled a waterfall. The name ended up sticking (despite it not really describing the condition at all).
So cataract refers to the clouding of the eye's natural lens (which is usually clear), which sits behind the coloured part of the eye (the iris) and helps focus light onto the retina. Cataracts develop when proteins in the lens are damaged and clump together. This reduces the amount of light that can pass though the lens to the retina which leads to loss of vision.
Cataracts can occur in one or both eyes and while they don’t generally cause pain, the symptoms can cause discomfort. When the lens becomes cloudy, it affects vision clarity leading to blurry or hazy eyesight. Cataracts can also make you sensitive to bright lights, see starbursts around lights, or see everything as slightly faded or yellow. You may also have trouble reading, driving at night, or seeing faces or other details clearly. Cataracts can usually be diagnosed in an eye examination.
What’s the cause?
Cataracts usually develop gradually over time, and you may not have any symptoms at first. They’re commonly associated with aging, with half of Australians over 50 affected and almost everyone developing cataracts by the age of 80. But other factors can also contribute to their formation such as prolonged exposure to ultraviolet radiation or its longer wavelength cousin infrared, certain medications, eye injuries, and medical conditions like diabetes. Some cataracts can be present at birth (congenital cataract) or develop during childhood due to genetic factors or infections during pregnancy.
Some people are more at risk, including people who have:
- a family history of cataracts
- used corticosteroid medicines for long periods
- spent a lot of time exposed to sunlight without good eye protection
- had eye injuries
- had some types of eye surgeries
- had radiation treatment (such as for cancer).
What’s the treatment?
An early diagnosis means that it may be some time before a cataract causes vision to be significantly reduced, so it’s not uncommon for one to be monitored for a few years before needing treatment. But cataracts can’t recover on their own so, while glasses and improved lighting can help to improve vision in their early stages, surgery is the only effective way to remove a cataract and restore vision.
An ophthalmic surgeon will operate on the eye as a day surgery (so you won’t need to stay overnight but you can’t drive until your vision has returned to normal, so you’ll need someone to drive you home).
During the surgery, a small incision is made in the cornea through which the clouded lens is broken up and removed. A tiny artificial intraocular lens (IOL) is then carefully positioned in the lens capsule to restore clear vision. The IOL, made of biocompatible materials such as acrylic or silicone, remains permanently in the eye, providing improved focusing power. In recent years there has been a growing trend towards intraocular lenses that can even correct for near vision.
Don’t forget to check your Hospital cover to see if you’re covered for cataract surgery.
Can they be prevented?
While some of the risk factors for cataracts can’t be changed (like family history), you can help to prevent cataracts developing or slow down their development by wearing good quality sunglasses and a hat when you’re outside to protect your eyes from ultraviolet radiation. Regular eye examinations will also help you to look after your eyes for the long term.
Did you know?
Believe it or not, cataracts have made their mark on the world of art. Renowned painters like Claude Monet and Edgar Degas experienced cataracts which influenced their art. The vision changes affected how they saw colours and contrast. Monet's later works took on a softer, more impressionistic style, which may’ve been influenced by his cataracts. These artists creatively adapted to their evolving vision.
If you have any issues with your eyes or vision, speak to an optometrist. You can book an appointment at a Teachers Health Centre or one of our optical providers. Don’t forget, an eye check every three years (or one every year once you’re 65) is covered by Medicare.