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Don't Lose Sight of Cataract
By the National Eye Institute

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Eye Diseases and Disorders Series - LPR Staff Project - December 27, 2004

(This article is for information purposes only. Always consult your doctor for medical advice.)

Click here to jump to a list of cataract related links.

The following is an abridgement of an article that was provided courtesy of the National Eye Institute. A complete, printed copy of this article, as well as a other free publications offered by the NEI, can be ordered via their NEI Publications Catalog.

Don't Lose Sight of Cataract
By the National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health

What is a cataract?

A cataract is a clouding of the eye's lens that causes loss of vision. This brochure is about age-related cataract, the most common type.

What causes it?

The lens lies behind the iris and the pupil . It works much like a camera lens. It focuses light onto the retina at the back of the eye, where an image is recorded. The lens also adjusts the eye's focus, letting us see things clearly both up close and far away.

The lens is made of mostly water and protein. The protein is arranged in a precise way that keeps the lens clear and lets light pass through it.

But as we age, some of the protein may clump together and start to cloud a small area of the lens. This is a cataract. Over time, the cataract may grow larger and cloud more of the lens, making it harder to see.

Researchers suspect that there are several causes of cataract, such as smoking and diabetes. Or, it may be that the protein in the lens just changes from the wear and tear it takes over the years.

When are you most likely to have a cataract?

The term "age-related" is a little misleading. You don't have to be a senior citizen to get this type of cataract. In fact, people can have an age-related cataract in their 40s and 50s. But during middle age, most cataracts are small and do not affect vision. It is after age 60 that most cataracts steal vision.

What are its symptoms?

A cataract starts out small. It has little effect on vision at first. You may notice that your vision is blurred a little, like looking through a cloudy piece of glass.

A cataract may make light from the sun or a lamp seem too bright, causing a glare. Or, you may notice when you drive at night that the oncoming headlights cause more glare than before. Also, colors may not appear as bright to you as they once did.

As the cataract gets bigger and clouds more of the lens (doctors use the term, "ripens"), you will find it harder to read and do other normal tasks. The word "cataract" means waterfall. For people with a ripe cataract, it is like trying to see through a waterfall.

How is a cataract detected?

Although you might think you have a cataract, the only way to know for sure is by having an eye examination. Should your eye care professional find one, he or she can monitor it and advise you about any future treatment.

How is a cataract treated?

It is treated with surgery. Your eye care professional will remove your clouded lens and, in most cases, replace it with a clear, plastic lens. Cataract surgery is very successful in restoring vision. In fact, it is one of the most common surgeries performed in the United States, with over 1.5 million cataract surgeries done each year.

When should a cataract be treated?

If your eye care professional finds a cataract, you may not need cataract surgery for several years. In fact, you might never need cataract surgery. By having your vision tested regularly, you and your eye care professional can discuss if and when you might need treatment.

What research is being done?

The National Eye Institute (NEI), one of the Federal government's National Institutes of Health, supports research on the lens and age-related cataract. Most of these studies focus on controlling cataract with drugs so that surgery will not be needed. Although these drugs are not yet available to patients, research is moving forward in this area. The NEI is also evaluating whether certain vitamins and minerals might prevent or slow the progress of cataract. We should know more about whether this treatment works in the coming years.

What can you do to protect your vision?

If you are over age 60, you should have an eye examination at least once every two years. This exam should include dilating your pupils. This means drops are put into your eyes to enlarge your pupils. Although a cataract can be detected without dilated pupils, your eye care professional can see the back of your eye better using this exam. Getting a good view of the retina and optic nerve is important in detecting eye diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration.

Resource List

The following organizations may be able to provide additional information on Cataracts:

National Eye Institute (NEI)
31 Center Drive MSC 2510
Bethesda, MD 20892-2510
(301) 496-5248
Conducts and supports research on eye diseases and vision disorders. Offers free publications for the general public and patients.

National Marfan Foundation
22 Manhasset Avenue
Port Washington, NY 11050
(516) 883-8712
Disseminates information about Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder of the connective tissues in which dislocated lenses, cataract, and retinal detachment are ocular symptoms. Provides a communication network for patients and their family members. Supports and encourages research. Publishes The Marfan Syndrome, a comprehensive booklet on the disease, and A Guide for Eye Care Professionals.

For more information about IOLs, contact:

U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Office of Consumer Affairs
Parklawn Building (HFE-88)
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857

For more information about low vision services and programs, you may wish to contact:

American Academy of Ophthalmology
P.O. Box 7424
San Francisco, CA 94120-7424
(415) 561-8500
Represents board-certified ophthalmologists in the United States. Offers public information materials and clinical education programs in a variety of formats. Offers a Find a Doctor service on their website to help people locate local board-certified ophthalmologists.

American Foundation for the Blind
11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300
New York, NY 10001-2006
(212) 502-7600
Serves as a one-stop information and referral resource for people who are blind or visually impaired, the people who work with them, and the general public. Conducts a wide variety of programs to support independent living, literacy, employment, and access to technology. Publishes professional materials for blindness and low vision and Talking Books. Offers consultation services to eye care, rehabilitation, and education professionals. Provides referrals to low vision centers. Advocates for legislative change.

American Optometric Association
243 N. Lindbergh Boulevard
St. Louis, MO 63141
(314) 991-4100
Represents optometrists in the United States. Provides brochures on eye problems for the lay public and professional materials on eye care delivery. Offers a Find a Doctor service on their website to help people locate optometrists.

Council of Citizens with Low Vision International
Serves as an advocacy group for the visually impaired. Provides information on low vision technology. Offers scholarship. Publishes the CCLV News.

Lighthouse International
111 East 59th Street
New York, NY 10022-1202
(212) 821-9200
(212) 821-9713 (TDD)
Serves as a national clearinghouse for information on vision impairment across the life span including specific services for children and seniors. Offers a comprehensive selection of educational products, large print materials, talking products, and related specialty items for people with visual impairments. Offers reading and library services, employment and recreation resources, and technology centers.

National Association for Visually Handicapped
22 W. 21st Street, 6th Floor
New York, NY 10010-6493
(212) 889-3141
Serves as a clearinghouse for information about all services available to the partially-sighted from public and private sources. Conducts self-help groups. Provides information on large print books, textbooks, and educational tools.

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