Cataracts: Risk Factors and Symptoms
Why do some of us develop cataracts and not others? Who is most likely to develop the condition, and how can we tell if we have it? In the following sections, we’ll outline the risk factors for cataracts and tell you what signs and symptoms to be alert for. For a few basics about cataracts and its diagnosis, treatment, and care, see the following related articles: Overview of Cataracts, Diagnosing Cataracts, and Treatment and Care of People with Cataracts.
Who Is At Risk?
As with heart disease and most other chronic health conditions, some risk factors for cataracts—getting up in years, for instance—are beyond our control. But specific behavioral and lifestyle choices we make, such as smoking, may magnify our risk. Cataracts is a multifactorial disease—that is, several factors contribute to its development even within a single individual. Let’s take a look at some of them:
- Age. As the crow’s feet and laugh lines become more deeply etched in our features, the risk for cataracts inevitably increases (see The Aging Eye).
- Ethnicity. Some evidence suggests that our ethnic ancestry influences the likelihood of developing cataracts. In fact, cataracts is the leading cause of treatable vision loss among African-Americans age 40 and over, and it’s the number one cause of low vision among Americans of Latino, African, and European descent.
- Gender. For reasons that are unclear, women are more likely than men to develop cataracts.
- Sunlight exposure. A higher level of exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun’s rays makes the development of cataracts more likely. (Read How to Avoid Sun Damage).
- Diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, people with diabetes are 60% more likely than those without diabetes to develop cataracts, and the condition tends to affect them at a younger age and to progress more rapidly than in people with cataracts who do not have diabetes.
- Poor nutrition. Although further study is needed, vision researchers believe that a diet high in saturated fat may be linked to the development of cataracts. They’re also investigating the possibility that low blood calcium levels may contribute to cataract development.
- Smoking. In addition to the dangers that everyone already knows, smoking also puts you at a higher risk for cataracts. The relationship is dose related, so heavy smokers have a higher risk than people who smoke less.
- Alcohol intake. A higher incidence of cataracts has been found among people who chronically abuse alcohol.
Researchers have proposed several other factors that may increase the risk of cataracts. They include a family history of the disease, myopia (nearsightedness), obesity, use of statin (cholesterol lowering) medications, and high blood pressure.
The most important way you can protect yourself is simply by making sensible lifestyle choices—eating a low-fat diet, wearing UV-filtering sunglasses, and not smoking or quitting smoking are good ways to start. Some studies suggest that taking an antioxidant vitamin supplement might cut your risk of cataracts, too.
What Are the Symptoms?
Okay, let’s say you or someone in your care has a few of the risk factors listed above—most of us do. How do you know whether to consult a vision care provider (see Diagnosing Cataracts)? Following are some common signs and symptoms of cataracts:
- Blurry or dim vision. Your vision may be cloudy, as though you were looking out the window on a foggy day. Sharp outlines may seem to fade into the background, and you may lose the ability to perceive fine detail.
- Sensitivity to glare. Glaring light may cause frequent headaches, or you may have eye strain that prompts you to blink continually in an effort to refocus your eyes.
- Muted color perception. Colors may appear dull or yellowed.
- Poor night vision. Headlights and street lights may seem to be surrounded by a halo, making it dangerous to drive after dark. Inside, you may find yourself using brighter reading lamps or other task lighting, or you may require indirect lighting.
- Poor central vision. When a cataract forms behind the pupil, called a nuclear cataract, it may be hard to discern objects in the center of your visual field (refer to Overview of Cataracts for an explanation of how cataracts are classified). This kind of cataract is a common cause of low vision.
- Double vision. You may perceive duplicate images in a single eye.
- Frequent changes in your eyeglasses or contact lens prescription. Although a cataract clouds your vision little by little, your prescription will change more often than usual as the condition progresses. In particular, your ability to see objects close to you may improve suddenly, while your ability to see things far away declines. A posterior capsular cataract (see Overview of Cataracts) develops more rapidly than the other types, necessitating even more frequent prescription adjustments.
What If I Suspect Cataracts?
If you believe that you or a friend or loved one has cataracts, a thorough eye examination by a vision care specialist is in order (read Diagnosing Cataracts). The provider will review your medical history and risk factors, ask about your symptoms, examine your eyes, and perform specialized tests to check for cataracts and to rule out other eye diseases. If you do have cataracts, your provider will explain the treatment options or advise taking a “wait and see” approach (see Treatment and Care of People with Cataracts).