Often when I talk with my patients about cataracts they’re very unclear about what a cataract really is! Lots of people seem to think it’s something affecting the front of the eye and can be peeled off. Others think it can just be lasered off. Others think cataracts only happen in older people. None of these things are strictly true. Cataracts are one of the most common eye disorders in the world and so of course lots of myths have sprung up around them. Let’s figure out what cataracts are, who they affect and what you can do to prevent or treat them.
To fully understand cataracts you need to know a very little bit about the anatomy of the eye. The biggest thing to absorb here is that the pupil, the dark central part of your eye, is not an actual thing. The pupil is actually nothing! It’s just a hole. Behind that hole though is a very cool structure called the crystalline lens. The lens in your eye not only provides some of the focusing ability of your eye so you can see far away it also flexes and changes shape to allow you to see clearly when you look at things that are close to you as well. Overtime that lens can become cloudy. This prevents as much light from getting to your retina and also causes light to scatter. This leads to a combination of blurred vision and night glare. This is a cataract.
So now that we know what a cataract is, what causes it? There are actually a lot of different causes so today I’ll go over just a few. One of the most important causes of cataracts is exposure to UV light. Over the long term UV light causes the lens inside of our eye to cloud up. Your best protection against this is to wear sunglasses as much as possible when outside, even on cloudy days or as the sun is going up or down. Many people think there is a much lower risk of UV exposure when it’s cloudy or during sunrise or sunset but while the UV exposure is somewhat reduced UV is still getting through to your eyes and skin.
An impact or other types of injury (such as electric shock) can also cause cataracts in otherwise young and healthy people. The trauma to the eye and to the lens can cause the lens itself to rupture or crack. These cracks allow fluid to enter into the rigidly organized lens and allows a cataract to form. The most obvious way to prevent this is to protect yourself against injury! Wear safety glasses if you’re doing work where something might hit you in the eye and definitely while participating in sports like squash that carry a high risk of getting hit in the eye.
The last type of cataract I’ll go over today is congenital. Congenital is fancy word for ‘you’re born with it’. Roughly ⅓ of congenital cataracts are genetic, ⅓ are caused by a disorder or disease and ⅓ are idiopathic… another fancy word that means we don’t really know where they come from. Hospitals do typically check newborns to make sure they don’t have an obvious or significant congenital cataract that requires treatment . That said I have a lot of patients that have minor congenital cataracts that aren’t really an issue but they had no idea were there.
So cataracts are inside the eye and are the clouding of the lens behind our pupil. They can affect anyone from newborns to seniors depending on a lot of different factors. These facts probably fly in the face of what you thought cataracts really were! The good news is that cataracts can be easily removed with a relatively quick and easy surgery. That’s a topic for another blog though! For now, if you have any questions you can always contact us on Twitter, Facebook, Google + or via our website. For more information check out the following links.