Everything You Need to Know About Cataracts

Did you know that more than 20.5 million Americans over the age of 40 are diagnosed with cataracts? The risk of cataracts developing and worsening increases as you age, in fact over half of Americans over the age of 75 have cataracts.

Though cataracts aren’t uncommon, caring for individuals with cataract disease can be incredibly challenging, especially without the proper resources. June is Cataract Awareness Month, and we’re here to show you the what, how, and why of cataracts, from prevention to treatment and beyond. 

What are cataracts?

Before delving into the definition of what a cataract is, it’s important to understand what the eye’s lens is and how it affects people’s vision.

The eye lens lies beneath the eye’s cornea and assists in focusing light and images onto the retina of the eye. Once light and images pass through the transparent lens of the eye and reach the retina, the light and images are transmitted into nerve signals and transported to the brain.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology offers this definition: “A cataract is when your eye's natural lens becomes cloudy.” It might sound simple or not even that serious, but the result of having a cataract (or two) can dramatically interfere with your life, causing poor vision and even blindness.

As individuals grow older, the proteins inside the eye lens painlessly clump together, clouding this typically clear lens.

What are the different types of cataracts?

Though most cases of cataracts are age-related, other types of cataracts do exist, including cataracts that are present from birth, cataracts occurring after surgery or injury, or radiation cataracts from overexposure to radiation from cancer treatments to X-rays. Here are the 5 main types of cataracts:

  • Secondary Cataract: A cataract can occur after surgery or other health problems, like glaucoma, diabetes, and steroid abuse.
  • Traumatic Cataract: Cataracts can occasionally develop days or even years after the eye experiences a traumatic injury.
  • Congenital Cataract: Babies can be born with cataracts or may develop them at a young age. Though both eyes are typically affected with congenital cataracts, they are often so small that vision is not altered.
  • Radiation Cataract: Cataracts have also been known to develop after extensive exposure to various types of ionizing radiation like that used in cancer therapy and X-rays.
  • Nuclear Cataracts: Nuclear cataracts are the most common type of cataract. They form in the center or nucleus of the lens of the eye. They are often caused by the natural aging process and are usually associated with the breakdown of proteins in the lens, which results in cloudiness and yellowing of the eye lens.

What causes cataracts?

Though cataracts begin small, affecting only a small portion of the lens, time and age typically worsen cataracts, causing vision impairment over time. Even though experiencing cataracts is a painless process, the deterioration of vision can be both frustrating and frightening.

Researchers have discovered that lifestyle habits and certain behaviors can add to the risk of cataract disease, behaviors such as:

  • Frequent sun exposure without proper eye protection
  • Smoking
  • High blood sugar
  • High blood pressure
  • Steroid medications
  • Hormone replacement therapy
  • Excessive amounts of alcohol
  • Obesity

What are common symptoms of cataracts?

No matter how well we care for our eyes, the development of cataracts is often inevitable. However, with regular eye exams and attention to our vision health, cataracts can be detected early with the possibility of different treatment. If you notice any of the following eye symptoms, make an appointment with your VSP network doctor as soon as possible. According to the National Eye Institute, here are 8 of the most common symptoms of cataracts you should be aware of:

  1. Your vision appears cloudy, blurry, or dim.
  2. Doing activities at night becomes much more difficult.
  3. Your eye’s lens appears darker with a hint of yellow or brown.
  4. Eyes become extremely sensitive to light.
  5. The clouded lens diffracts light entering the eye causing halo-like rings to surround the light source.
  6. Eyesight worsens rapidly and your prescription changes frequently.
  7. The yellow or brownish clumps of protein in your lens give everything a yellowish tint.
  8. Clouding of your eye causes double vision also known as diplopia.

Are cataracts preventable?

Cataracts might seem like something that “sometimes happens” when we get older. Or, you might think that cataracts strike randomly. But it is not true that cataracts are inevitable for everyone or completely random. Cataracts can even develop when you are relatively young — for some people, that’s as early as their 40s. Here are 5 steps you can take to keep your vision healthier for longer, and reduce your risk of developing cataracts.

  1. Protect your eyes from UV light: Use UV-coated glasses every time you go outdoors, even in winter or when the sun is low in the sky.
  2. Keep vices in check: Smoking and excessive alcohol use can contribute to the cause of cataracts. If you smoke, it’s always a good time to consider quitting.
  3. Eat a balanced diet: A balanced diet with colorful fruits and vegetables will help you keep enough vitamins and nutrients in your body.
  4. Get an annual eye exam: Getting an eye exam is one of the best ways to detect cataracts and other vision conditions early on.
  5. Manage your diabetes: If you are pre-diabetic or have diabetes, take steps to manage diabetes symptoms and blood sugar. Changes in the fluid between the lens and the cornea can be affected by uncontrolled blood glucose levels, leading to cloudy lens cells.

How can I find out if I have cataracts?

If you notice any of the above symptoms like cloudy vision, sensitivity to light or yellowing eye lenses, it is recommended that you make an eye exam appointment with your eye doctor immediately. If cataracts are diagnosed, you may be referred to an ophthalmologist, or an eye specialist who performs cataract surgery. Here are 5 things you can do to prepare for your eye exam: 

  1. Write down a list of questions you want to ask your eye doctor. You might want to ask about surgery protocol, risks, timelines, and more.
  2. Make a list of all the medications you are taking. Include vitamins and supplements, as well.
  3. Bring someone along to your eye exam appointment to take notes or keep track of questions.
  4. Make note of any life stressors or changes that could be impacting your health and your impaired vision.
  5. Write down all symptoms you’ve experienced and how long you’ve been experiencing them.

How are cataracts treated?

Even if you notice the signs of cataracts, there are steps you should take to protect your vision and stop the degeneration. The National Eye Institute is direct: "No matter what type of cataract you have, the treatment is always surgery.” The good news is the National Eye Institute says cataract surgery is moderately simple—it is one of the most common operations in the United States—and has a very high success rate. 

The important part is to act early: the longer cataracts are left untreated, the more difficult it can be to successfully remove the cataract and restore vision through surgery. Cataracts might seem to start slowly, but they are still one of the leading causes of blindness in the United States. 

Life After Cataract Surgery

Recovery after cataract surgery is almost always at home, following your doctor’s instructions. There are a few guidelines you may be asked to follow, including eye drops that help with healing, and protective eyewear for a short amount of time while you are sleeping. 

But within a relatively short amount of time, you’ll be back to all the things you love, from activities to seeing your favorite sights. 

Learn About Cataracts: Keep Your Future Bright

Care for your eyesight with vision insurance coverage from VSP.  With annual plans starting as low as $13 per month, VSP Individual Vision Plans provide a WellVision Exam each year and access to a vast network of eye doctors you can trust. VSP vision enrollment is open year-round, and you can choose a future effective date that works with your schedule. Sign up for a VSP individual Vision Plan online or learn more about eye insurance coverage today.

Information received through VSP Individual Vision Plans’ social media channels is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice, medical recommendations, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Your vision. Your way.

Not covered for vision? Get an individual plan, customized for you – including where you want to use it: at the doctor, in a retail location, or even online.

VSP Benefits & Savings

Build Your Plan

How To Find the Best Vision Insurance For You

Vision Insurance >

How To Find the Best Vision Insurance For You

In the realm of health and wellness, eyesight sometimes takes a back seat until the moment we notice a change in our vision or experience discomfort...

Why Vision Insurance Is Important

Vision Insurance >

Why Vision Insurance Is Important

If you’re one of those lucky people with 20/20 vision, you may be wondering if vision insurance is worth it. You have good eyesight, so why in...

All About Buying Contact Lenses Online

Contacts >

All About Buying Contact Lenses Online

Online contact retailers are quite common nowadays. That makes it incredibly simple for you to find the best deal, but there are also some important...