In the United States alone, cataracts affect more than 20 million people over age 40. The condition ranks as the leading cause of blindness and vision impairment worldwide, affecting more than 17 million people. The World Health Organization estimates that number will jump to 40 million by 2020.
“We’re all born with a natural lens in our eye, and it’s almost like the lens of a camera. It helps you focus,” explained ophthalmologist Anupama Anchala, M.D., who was the featured presenter for the most recent Learning Café session at Weiss. Dr. Anchala delivered a lecture titled “Clarifying Cataracts.”
Proteins make up the lens, and with aging those proteins become more water insoluble, which scatters the light that enters the eye. The lens also grows with age, adding layers on top of each other, which causes compression and hardens the lens. This leads to a clouding, until “it’s almost like looking through a dirty window.”
Dr. Anchala listed risk factors, including:
- Gender (female)
- Radiation exposure—sun, infrared and cancer radiation if applied to eye area
- Medication—cholesterol, steroid and eye drops
- Chemical or electrical injury
- Low calcium
As the cataract forms, focusing on nearby objects becomes more difficult. The person may also experience blurred vision, difficulty reading or driving at night, and double vision in one eye. Colors may appear less vibrant.
However, Dr. Anchala said, “Just because you have a cataract doesn’t mean it has to be treated or taken out. Lots of people have a mild stage of it, and can still see 20/20.”
She recommended that concerned audience members visit an ophthalmologist for an eye exam, during which the doctor will check eye pressure as well as dilate the pupils to see into the eye.
Today, ophthalmologists treat cataracts with surgery. After showing illustrated images of ancient cataract treatments—including one from 800 B.C. India which showed a practitioner using a lancet and giant needle to push the lens to the back of the eye—Dr. Anchala showed a video of modern cataract surgery.
The surgery typically lasts 30 minutes, with the patient in a twilight state. The surgeon makes a small incision into the cornea and uses ultrasound to break up the clouded lens and tiny tools to vacuum it out of the eye. Afterward, she inserts a crystal clear implant in place of the original lens.
Most of the implants covered by insurance are monofocal, Dr. Anchala explained, so the patient likely will need glasses to read. The person’s overall vision, however, improves greatly.
“This has a 95 to 98 percent success rate and fast vision recuperation,” Dr. Anchala said.
She added that although cataracts occur naturally with age, people can take preventive measures by giving up cigarettes; eating foods high in lutein, such as spinach, kale and broccoli; and decreasing sun exposure by wearing glasses and brimmed hats.