In the senior community, besides glaucoma, one of the most common vision problems that older adults tend to face is cataracts. Typically, cataracts only impact older adults and they tend to get worse with age. While cataracts are increasingly common, especially for individuals age 75 and older, it is important that this common eye issue does not go untreated. If left without treatment, cataracts can cause serious and even permanent vision changes. This is why it is so important for seniors, their caregivers and their loved ones to understand cataracts, what they are and how to get the help needed to prevent cataract issues from worsening.
What Are Cataracts?
A cataract is a term used to described the gradual clouding process of the lens of the eye. When the eyes become clouded from cataracts, light is not able to properly pass through the eye, causing the lens to become cloudy and therefore distorting and disturbing vision. When the lens of the eye is cloudy, the image that a person sees will be cloudy as well.
Cataract vision loss is typically gradual, and while cataracts tend to develop in both eyes, they often grow and expand at different rates, meaning some seniors notice more vision loss in one eye before the other.
There are actually several different types of cataracts, the following are most likely to impact seniors:
- Traumatic Cataracts- These are cataracts that develop after an eye injury, sometimes they take years to start developing.
- Secondary Cataracts- These are cataracts that form after an eye surgery. Sometimes, when individuals have surgery for an issue such as glaucoma, they can develop cataracts when their surgery is done.
- Radiation Cataracts- Cataracts are actually a common side effect of some types of radiation and can develop after intensive radiation treatment.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Cataracts?
The number one symptom of forming cataracts is gradual vision loss. This type of vision loss can vary from person to person, it may include gradually blurred vision, issues seeing at night time or problems with glare impacting vision. Some people find that they need to frequently change their glasses or contact prescription while others may see halos or spots in their vision. Some claim to see faded colors or even suffer from double vision.
One of the most noticeable and blatant signs of cataracts among seniors is a cloudy covering over the eye. Typically, cataracts are fairly significant by the time they are visible to the naked eye, but this symptom is perhaps the most recognizable sign there is a cataract issue forming. These are all signs that cataracts may be forming on the eyes, and that the senior in question needs to see their ophthalmologist for further diagnosis.
Typically, cataracts develop as people age, and are most common among seniors. However, there are also other factors that can increase a person's likelihood of developing. This includes having an injury directly to the eye, enduring electric shock, smoking and being on certain medication. Individuals who expose their eyes excessively to direct UV light are also at a higher risk for developing cataracts. Seniors who have diabetes are also at higher risk for developing cataracts.
How Are Cataracts Diagnosed?
Seniors should be receiving regular eye exams to stay on top of their visual health. However, for seniors who aren't receiving regular eye exams, it is important that they visit an ophthalmologist at the first sign of worsening vision. There are three main ways in which cataracts are diagnosed, including:
- Dilated Eye Exam- During this type of exam, the doctor places drops in the eyes to dilate the pupils, so that the doctor can further examine the retina and optic nerve. With a special magnifying lens, the doctor can look for signs of damage, clouding and serious eye problems.
- Tonometry- A tonometry is an instrument that measures pressures inside the eye. Using special numbing drops, ophthalmologists can quickly and easily measure how much pressure is building in the eye to better diagnose a cataract issue.
- Visual Acuity Tests- This test utilizes an eye chart to test vision at different distances.
Together, tests such as this can help ophthalmologists determine overall eye health and make an accurate cataract diagnosis.
How Are Cataracts Treated?
After an eye exam and a confirmed cataract diagnosis, most medical professionals will offer patients with a variety of treatment options, depending on each individual case and the severity of the diagnosis. The good news is there are a variety of visual aids that are now available specifically for those with cataracts. New eyeglasses, anti-glare lenses or sunglasses and even specialty magnifying lenses can all help improve vision in individuals that have cataracts. These solutions are designed to help improve vision problems caused by cataracts, but they do not actually fix the cataracts.
In some severe cases, where cataracts interfere with an individual's everyday life and leads to serious vision loss, surgery may be recommended. Cataract removal surgery is a process that removes the cloudy lens covering the eye and replaces that lens with a new artificial lens. Cataract surgery is a serious process and it is one that seniors and their healthcare professionals should discuss together.
One of the most important things for seniors to remember when it comes to debating over cataract surgery, is that with cataract removal, there is no real need to rush into surgery. Delaying cataract surgery won't cause long-term damage to the eye, and it won't make a surgery more difficult. For individuals who choose to have surgery on both eyes, each surgery will need to be done separately, typically four to eight weeks apart.
There are also some situations where cataracts need to be removed, even if the presence of cataracts doesn't cause vision problems. There are some situations where serious cataracts can actually prevent the treatment of another eye problem such as macular degeneration.
The best way to find out more about cataract treatments and possible solutions, seniors need to visit their eye doctor regularly for comprehensive eye exams and to gain insight on their cataracts and how they are progressing. Sometimes, cataracts can be left alone for years before a serious treatment is needed, but the best thing that seniors can do is to follow up with their cataracts and with their doctor to gain insight into their overall vision health.