The mention of cataracts can cause a bit of a heart palpitation for some people, particularly older ones who have family members who supposedly went blind from the condition. However, cataracts are as expected as wrinkles and white hairs – they are a normal part of aging. Over 24 million Americans aged over 40 have some degree of cataract; in the state of California over 16% of the population have a cataract in one or both eyes, which means more than 6 million Californians are walking around with a cataract, probably in addition to a few wrinkles and white hairs.
A cataract refers to an opacity or clouding of the lens inside the eye. This lens sits just behind the colored iris of the eye and is designed to be optically transparent such that light can pass through to form clear vision on the sensory retina right at the back of the eyeball. However, as with most parts of the human body, as time passes certain things don’t work as well anymore. The knees get a bit creaky, the old kidneys don’t filter so well, the skin sags (everywhere), and the lens of the eye loses its transparency. While most cataracts are age-related, also known flatteringly as senile cataracts, there can be other causes of cataract, too:
- Systemic diseases such as diabetes
- Trauma to the eye
- Radiation exposure
- The use of certain medications such as steroids, whether taken orally or as eye drops
- As a result of other medical procedures to the eye, such as retinal detachment surgery
- Congenital causes
If left untreated, cataracts can progress and impair the vision. Eventually this can lead to blindness but rarely does a cataract cause permanent loss of vision. Cataract surgery is listed right up there on the list of most common surgical procedures performed in the US with over 3 million people undergoing this vision-restoring procedure every year. As about half of all 75-year-olds have cataract, it’s not surprising that this condition gets a bit of airtime during lunch conversations with the friends.
So, now the million-dollar question – how do we stop aging?
We Can’t Stop Aging. Time is Relentless and Answers to Nobody.
So, the $900,000 question – how can we prevent cataract?
Currently there is no sure-fire way of preventing cataracts from ever forming but before we drop that prize money any further, consider the following factors that could slow or delay the progression of cataracts.
Good nutrition is good for everything so it’s no surprise that it might have some benefits for your eyes, as well. One of the theories of senile cataract development is the presence of oxidative stress, altering the function of the cells of the lens, which results in a loss of its transparency and subsequent cataract. While not all studies are unanimous, many have concluded that a diet rich in antioxidants can reduce the risk of developing cataract. In particular, vitamins A, C, and E were associated with a lower risk of cataract. Two other antioxidants from a group of vitamins known as carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, were also found to provide a protective effect against cataract. In fact, one study conducted amongst women across Iowa, Wisconsin, and Oregon found that women with the highest intakes of lutein and zeaxanthin had a 32% lower chance of developing age-related cataract than women with the lowest lutein and zeaxanthin consumption. Good sources of these vitamins include bright red, orange, and yellow colored fruits such as citrus fruits, peppers, and tomatoes, green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, and brussels sprouts, and nuts. Eggs are also a rich source of lutein and zeaxanthin.
Cigarette smoking is a well-established risk factor for cataract development. In addition to adding to your wrinkles, the chemicals contained in tobacco contribute to oxidative stress on the lens of the eye. In one study, smokers who puffed more than 20 cigarettes a day suffered twice the risk of cataract when compared to those who had never smoked. However, there is some chance of redemption. In the same study, men who had quit smoking within the previous 10 years reduced their risk of cataract by 20% when compared to those who continued to smoke, though for men who had quit more than 10 years prior there was no significant further decreased risk. The improved chances of delaying a cataract diagnosis in the group of ex-smokers is thought to be due to cutting off the cumulative damage of smoking to the eye over the years when compared to someone who continues to smoke, but there is some evidence that points to the lens of the eye having some capacity to recover from the initial smokey insult.
Not all research has found consistent associations with UV radiation exposure and an increased risk of cataract. UV-A and UV-B wavelengths are thought to contribute to oxidative damage to the lens and a resultant cataract, leading many eyecare practitioners to recommend sun protection in the form of a hat and sunglasses that block 100% of UV-A and UV-B. As UV exposure has been linked to other disease including carcinoma of the eyelid, age-related macular degeneration, and dreaded wrinkles, taking this advice would not be unwise.
Again, not all studies concur on the association between alcohol and cataract formation, but there is some evidence linking alcohol consumption of over two standard drinks per day with an increased likelihood of requiring cataract surgery compared to those who down one to two drinks a day. Interestingly, those who partook in moderate levels of drinking, that is, one to two drinks a day, were found to have a reduced risk of cataract when compared to those who didn’t drink at all, implying that moderate alcohol consumption may have a protective effect.
Cataracts are a normal part of aging. While it is true that time is relentless and answers to nobody, there are some steps that can be taken to reduce your risk of cataract. Keeping up with regular eye tests is also valuable to monitor the development and progression of any cataract. Perhaps the longer you can hold off the cataracts the more easily you’ll be able to read (and answer) that million-dollar question when it comes around.
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