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Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in the world, and they don't just affect the elderly. They occur when proteins in the lens of the eye clump together, clouding vision. Although we associate them with old age, people can get age-related cataracts as early as 40 years old.
Cataracts are among the most common eye conditions -- more cases exist than glaucoma, macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy combined:
Cloudy or blurred vision is our common understanding of cataracts, but other symptoms exist:
The eye's lens is found behind the iris and pupil, and it's composed of water and proteins that allow light to pass through, focusing it onto the retina where the image can be recorded. It also helps us to focus our vision. But these proteins can clump together, clouding vision, and this clump can get larger and more obstructive over time.
That's the basic mechanism of cataracts, but what puts you at risk for them? There are a number of factors that can increase your chances of developing cataracts:
There's no guaranteed way to prevent cataracts, but you can reduce your risk by wearing sunglasses, maintaining a healthy body weight, exercising regularly, and avoiding tobacco use and excessive alcohol consumption.
Early on, you may be able to manage your cataracts with simple changes like anti-glare sunglasses, magnifying glasses for reading, new glasses or contacts prescriptions, or brighter lights for home or work, but the only treatment is surgery.
Surgery is the only way to truly remove your cataracts when they begin to interfere with daily activities. It involves removing the cataract lens and inserting a new, artificial lens called an intraocular lens (IOL). This is a safe surgery that improves vision in most of the people who receive it: 90 percent of cataract surgery patients see their vision improve to 20/20 or 20/40 afterwards.