Cataracts are virtually a fact of life, typically quoted as one of the expected effects of ageing. The term “cataract” refers to a clouding of the lens inside the eye and results in a variety of symptoms, including hazy or blurry vision, a decrease in contrast sensitivity, and even an alteration of colour perception. Although cataracts are often cited as the leading cause of blindness, this statistic is due to a lack of access to ophthalmology services and appropriate eyecare in many developing countries and rural communities. The vision loss from cataracts is reversible with surgery.
The prevalence of cataract increases in older age groups, because the strongest association with the development of cataract is simply older age. In this regard, developing some degree of cataract is inevitable, but this does not necessarily mean the cataracts will progress to a point where vision is severely impacted or surgery is indicated. Apart from the three types of age-related cataract: nuclear, cortical, and posterior subcapsular cataract, cataracts may also arise from other causes, such as systemic disease, including diabetes; from eye trauma or infection and inflammation; and from congenital conditions.
Though nothing short of surgical cataract extraction can reverse the effects of an existing cataract, several steps can be taken to delay its development or slow its progression.
The link between cataracts and tobacco smoking is well established in the scientific literature. Research has found that the amount of smoking is directly correlated with an increased risk of requiring cataract surgery with one study noting that individuals smoking more than 15 cigarettes a day were subject to a 42% increased risk of cataract surgery when compared to non-smokers. The good news is that ceasing smoking helps to reduce the risk of surgery though the risk remains higher when compared to those who have never smoked. Patients who had previously smoked more than 15 cigarettes a day were found to only have a 21% higher risk after 20 years of having quit smoking.
UV exposure is another risk factor for the development of cataract, leading many to believe that protection for the eyes in the form of sunglasses and hats can aid with cataract prevention.
However, studies investigating this further have estimated approximately 10% of a certain type of age-related cataracts, cortical cataracts, are as a consequence of UV-B damage.
Though this results in a relatively small proportion of cataract cases that would be preventable with UV protection, wearing sunglasses and a hat carry no disadvantage or risk, and so are still worthwhile.
Reduce alcohol consumption
Studies have found that heavy alcohol consumption – defined as more than two standard drinks a day – are associated with an increased risk of age-related cataract. Moderate alcohol intake did not yield any significant correlation with cataract development, leading scientists to believe that reducing alcohol consumption can aid with the prevention of cataract. One study conducted in Sweden found that females who engaged in daily alcohol intake were at an 11% higher risk of requiring cataract surgery compared to those with lower alcohol intake, and also needed to undergo surgery on average 2 years earlier than their non-drinking counterparts.
Research suggests that diets high in antioxidants, particularly vitamins A, C, and E, contribute some protection against age-related cataracts. The proposed basis is of this is that antioxidants protect against oxidative damage to the lens of the eye, which would otherwise result in opacification and cataract. While in theory a high intake of antioxidants in the diet should reduce the risk of cataract, not all studies have found strong evidence for nutrition as a reliable form of cataract prevention. However, as a healthy diet is generally beneficial for the body and antioxidants have proven protective effects for other parts of the eye, such as the macula, good nutrition is still advisable. Sources of antioxidant vitamins include green leafy vegetables such as spinach, red or orange coloured fruits and veggies, such as tomatoes and capsicum, and nuts.
Diabetes is an associated risk factor for many concurrent diseases throughout the body, including the formation of cataract. Excess glucose in the bloodstream triggers a metabolic pathway that results in absorption of water by the lens fibres, which causes swelling of the lens and the development of a diabetic cataract. Poorly controlled diabetes also impairs the ability of the lens to resist oxidative damage, further contributing to the increased risk of cataracts.
Cataract surgery is the most common surgical procedure performed in the Western world due to its high prevalence in our ageing population. While the development of age-related cataracts is nothing to be anxious about, delaying the development or progression of cataract by maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help to prolong quality of life and reduce the need for surgery.
As cataracts often begin with no noticeable symptoms, regular eye tests, whether with an optometrist or ophthalmologist, are recommended in order to be able to monitor any early changes. Call us for free at 1300 297 583