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All things cataracts and cataract surgery

Cataracts sound like a life sentence to some people.

Because fear feeds off the unknown, let’s cast some light on what cataracts are, what causes them, and what you can do about them.

“Cataract” is the term optometrists and other eye care professionals use to describe a particular change in the lens of the eye. Unlike certain eye diseases that may be genetic or can manifest over time, cataracts are most often age-related and come for most of us as we experience more life.

Cataracts occur when the lens in the eye becomes more opaque and less clear over time. People with cataracts often say that their vision is “cloudy” or blurred. Because the light that enters your eyes must pass through the lens on the interior of the eye, a “blurring” of this lens causes a few things to happen to your vision.

Firstly, those who are experiencing cataracts may experience notable changes in prescription year to year. As the lens blurs, the refraction of light within the eye changes. This causes perceived changes in vision, and usually toward a stronger prescription.

Those with cataracts may also experience sensitivity to light. This uncomfortable sensitivity to light is about as painful cataracts come. It can cause different levels of discomfort in different people, but because the lens in the eye is more opaque, light not only has a more difficult time entering the eye to aid in vision, but excess light has a difficult time escaping the eye. This may cause light to “bounce around” the inside of the eye, causing discomfort.

Other things experienced by the individual may include overall blurred vision, difficulty seeing at night, and “starburst” or “halos” of light.

Fortunately, cataracts are not necessarily an indication of an underlying health condition. When you are young, your lenses are relatively clear and flexible. In the same way that lenses become clouded as you get older, they also lose their elasticity at a younger age which makes it harder to see objects up close. This is commonly called presbyopia. This may be why folks in their 40’s start wearing reading glasses.

Fortunately, cataracts begin developing around age 40, but don’t typically affect vision until around age 60 – around the same age patients begin to gain benefits in the United States from Medicare.

On some Medicare plans, surgery may be fully covered or mostly covered, but it depends upon the plan selected by the individual. Your Medicare supplement may be able to better help you determine if cataracts surgery will be covered.

Surgery for cataracts involves replacing the clouded lens in the eye with a clearer, artificial lens. This can help to reduce prescription and clear overall vision. However, cataract surgery is not 100% effective for everyone. Secondary cataracts, or redeveloping cataracts after an initial lens replacement surgery, occurs in about 20% of patients. Good news is that secondary cataracts are much easier to treat and usually can be treated at one in-house appointment with your provider.

A representation of simple cataract surgery.

So, while cataracts are just another fun thing – and we use heavy sarcasm there – to look forward to as we get older, they are not the end all be all of bad news. Many people in the United States experience cataracts and will experience them in their lifetime.

It is important to visit your eye doctor or vision provider if you suspect you may be developing cataracts and to receive screenings about other health conditions, as your optometrist will be able to help direct you in the next steps to take.


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