As the aging process runs its course, it’s expected the body will go through certain changes. A slower metabolism, a reduction in stamina and a few extra pounds are some of the experiences of aging.

Another frequent development as people grow older is a loss of vision. According to the National Eye Institute, by the age of 80 more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery. Such figures illustrate the importance of understanding cataracts and what, if anything, can be done to avoid being another number among the cataract-having masses.

What are cataracts?

A cataract is a clouding of the lens that can impair a person’s vision. This impairment occurs because the lens helps to focus light on the retina, which needs a clear lens in order to receive a sharp image. If the lens isn’t clear (as is the case when a person has a cataract), the image received by the retina will be blurred. Though cataracts cannot be spread from one eye to the other, they can occur in both eyes.

Aren’t cataracts solely a concern for the elderly?

While the majority of people with cataracts are elderly, that doesn’t mean younger people, and even babies, cannot be stricken with a cataract. That’s because cataracts come in different forms.

• Age-related cataracts: These are the cataracts most people instantly think of. They develop as a result of aging.

• Traumatic cataracts: Anytime a person injures an eye, there’s the possibility that a traumatic cataract will develop. What’s more, these types of cataracts aren’t on a timetable and can develop years after the trauma occurred.

• Congenital cataracts: These can occur in infants or even older children and typically occur in both eyes. Sometimes, they go unnoticed because they do not affect vision. When they do affect vision, lens removal might be necessary.

• Secondary cataracts: These are often the result of another disease, such as diabetes, or another eye problem, like glaucoma. Overexposure to ultraviolet light can also cause cataracts. The NEI notes that secondary cataracts have been linked to steroid use as well.

How do I know if I have a cataract?

Just because you have a cataract doesn’t mean you know it. That’s because cataracts develop slowly and the symptoms are not overwhelming. Some of the more common symptoms include:

• blurry vision

• excess glare, making certain forms of light, such as headlights, lamps or sunlight, appear too bright

• difficulty driving at night because of oncoming headlights

• double vision, a symptom that might clear as the cataract continues to develop

• fading of colors

What can be done to prevent cataracts?

Prevention of cataracts can be difficult because there is no concrete cause. However, certain behaviors have been linked to cataracts, and therefore avoiding those behaviors can lessen a person’s risk. According to the NEI, smoking and alcohol use are risk factors for cataracts. In addition, researchers believe diabetes and cataracts are linked.

The good thing about these risk factors is that they can be controlled. People who don’t have diabetes should eat healthfully (a diet that includes green, leafy vegetables and fruit) and exercise, while all people should avoid smoking and drinking alcohol in excess. It’s also good to have a yearly eye exam, particularly for middle-aged adults and those older. People with a history of eye problems or who have experienced eye trauma in the past should also have yearly exams, regardless of age. NEI recommends people over the age of 60 should get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once every two years.

Another way to prevent the onset of cataracts is to keep eyes protected from the sun at all times. Since prolonged exposure to sunlight is a risk factor for cataracts, be sure to wear sunglasses whenever going out in the sun. For those with glasses, consider clip-on prescription lenses that attach directly to the lenses of eyeglasses.

To learn more about cataracts, visit the National Eye Institute Web site at (MS).

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