Today, more than 24 million Americans over the age of 40 are affected by cataracts. By age 80, more than half of our country’s population will either have a cataract or will have already had corrective surgery.

A cataract is the clouding of the eye’s lens which is located behind the iris and pupil. The job of the lens is to focus light and therefore images on the retina, where that light is translated into nerve signals that are routed to the brain. The lens is made mostly of water and protein. What is unique about the protein is its arrangement which keeps the lens crystal clear and allows light to easily pass through.

As we age, and for reasons which doctors still do not fully understand, clumps of protein form and start to cloud a small area on the lens. This is the beginning of a cataract which, if left untreated, will likely grow larger over time. A cloudy lens means blurred images, dull colors, poor night vision, and excessive glare from car headlights or the sun. More frequent changes to your eyeglass prescription could also be an indicator of cataracts. It is best to talk about all symptoms and concerns with your ophthalmologist, as some symptoms can also be attributed to more serious eye conditions. A full eye exam that includes pupil dilation is the first step in determining the type of cataract as well as its progression and treatment options.

Although there are several different types of cataracts, most are related to aging and normal wear and tear on the lens over the years combined with ultraviolet exposure from the sun. Other risk factors include diabetes, smoking and alcohol consumption, obesity, and hypertension.

At the early stages of cataracts, simple solutions such as new glasses or stronger bifocals will help. So will increasing the amount of light when performing delicate tasks or reading. When the symptoms worsen and impact daily activities or safety, it may be time to consider corrective surgery. Over 3 million Americans each year benefit from lens replacement which is relatively painless and has a fast recovery. 9 out of 10 patients can look forward to 20/20 or 20/40 vision, which may be why this is currently the most performed surgery in the U.S..

Cataract prevention is still controversial, but several studies suggest certain nutritional supplements and nutrients have a positive impact. Vitamin E, antioxidants including vitamin C, as well as foods containing omega-3 fatty acids may contribute to overall vision health, as will protection offered by sunglasses rated to block 100% of the sun’s harmful UVB rays. At your next ophthalmology appointment, be sure to ask what else you can be doing to protect your eyes and ensure a lifetime of clear vision.