As a Baby Boomer, chances are you know someone who has had cataracts in their eyes.
While it’s a common condition impacting more than 1.5 million Australians over the age of 55, many aren’t actually sure what it means to have cataracts, how they’re treated and how to recover from them.
In simple terms, a cataract causes a clouding of the eye’s natural clear lens. As the lens becomes darker, it becomes harder for light to pass through, making it difficult for a person to see. People are typically impacted by one or a combination of three types of cataracts. The first, nuclear cataracts, impact the centre of the lens. Cortical cataracts affect the outer shell of the lens, while posterior subcapsular cataracts occurs in the back of the lens.
“Half of the Australian population will develop significant cataracts by their 70s, so it’s one of the most, if not the most common eye condition in Australia,” Vision Australia optometrist Louise Maher tells Starts at 60.
Like many health problems, cataracts can form as part of the ageing process, however, there are other factors that can contribute to the eye condition or make them worse.
“The biggest risk factor is age, but also diabetes, exposure to UV light, so people who have spent a lot of time outdoors and also smokers,” Maher explains.
Heavy alcohol consumption can also cause cataracts to form, while people who experience vascular diseases such as coronary artery disease or high blood pressure may also be more prone to developing them. In some cases, eye injury and the use of some medications may increase the risk, while diets low in fruit and vegetable may also contribute to their formation.
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While it can drastically impact vision, it’s important to know that surgery is available to improve eyesight. Glasses can assist for a short time but eventually, a medical procedure is the only way to restore vision.
“The only treatment at the moment is surgery, so they’ll just do surgery when it’s visually significant,” Maher says. “A lot of people can have a cataract but not need treatment. It’s just when it starts to affect their vision enough.
“It’s a relatively simple procedure. It’s a day surgery and essentially, they take the cloudy lens out of the eye and put a clear fake one in. All the measurements are done before the surgery.”
People typically notice a difference in their vision within two days after surgery and vision typically stabilises within four weeks. Many people are also well enough to get behind the wheel again after 24 hours.
“The things you can’t do are vigorous exercise, heavy lifting, swimming, submerging your head under the water,” Maher notes. “Generally, you can drive if your vision is good enough after 24 hours.”
While there isn’t much you can do to slow down the formation of cataracts once it begins, it’s important to know that quitting smoking, having control of your diabetes and wearing sunglasses is important to maintaining good eye health.
“People should get their eyes tested every year, especially if they have a family history of eye disease and cataracts,” Maher says. “It’s the most common elective surgical procedure in Australia. It’s also one of the safest procedures to have, so it’s nothing to be worried about.”