Cataracts are the leading cause of vision impairments, especially in older people. The condition is very common in people aged 60 and older, and statistics from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) website shows that 54% of over 60’s in the UK suffer from some form of cataract.

What is a cataract?

A cataract is a cloudy patch on the lens, which is the small transparent disc inside your eye. Cataracts gradually become larger overtime and can result in blurred vision, or even blindness. They may develop on one or both of your lenses, but you can’t have more than one cataract per eye.

Cataracts typically occur with ageing and mainly affect older people. However, they can also be caused by illness or injury.

What causes cataracts?

Cataracts form as proteins in the lens of the eye break down, linger and make the lens cloudy. This results in an obstruction of your vision. Among the most common causes of cataracts are:

  • ageing: normal changes in the eye as you get older
  • diabetes: high blood sugar levels can result in structural changes in the lens, speeding up the formation of cataracts
  • eye injuries: cataracts can develop after trauma
  • eye surgery: some types of eye surgery may cause cataracts to develop earlier in life
  • steroids: including treatments for conditions such as lupus and arthritis
  • phenothiazine drugs: which are used to treat conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder
  • sun exposure: studies have shown that UV light can increase the risk of cataracts
  • eye injuries: cataracts can develop after trauma and damage to the eye
  • radiation treatment: can damage the cells covering the posterior surface of the lens, leading to cloudiness

What is the first sign of cataracts?

As you get older, the protein which the lens consists of may begin to form clumps. When the early signs of cataracts emerge, they can include:

  • your vision seeming fuzzy or cloudy
  • colours appearing dimmer or faded
  • more glare from sunshine, headlights and lamps
  • finding it harder to see at night
  • needing to change your vision prescription more regularly
  • double or multiple vision in one of your eyes

What does vision look like with cataracts?

So how do cataracts affect people? Many people with cataracts describe the condition as being similar to looking through a frosty or fogged-up window. Clouded vision caused by cataracts can make it more difficult to read, drive a car or see the expression on others’ faces.

Stages of cataracts

Cataracts get gradually worse over time. There are several stages, which have the following characteristics:

Early cataract

This is the start of the condition, when the lens is clear but your ability to switch focus between close-up objects (near vision) and distant targets (far vision) is beginning to be affected. During this initial stage, you may start to notice:

  • cloudy or blurred vision
  • glare from lights
  • eye strain

Immature cataract

Once proteins have begun to cloud the lens, they will be harder to see through, particularly at the centre. In this stage, you may be recommended new glasses by your ophthalmologist. The new lenses may be anti-glare and offer more attention to light, allowing you to read more easily. This stage, during which an immature cataract develops, can take a few years.

Mature cataract

By this stage, the cloudiness of your lens may start to appear white, amber or ‘milky’. It has reached the edges of the lens and will significantly affect your vision. If your daily activities and quality of life have been compromised by this point, your ophthalmologist may discuss the option of cataract surgery with you.

Hypermature cataract

During the final stage, the density and hardness of a cataract have increased to the point where your vision has become significantly compromised. Once you have reached the hypermature cataract stage and your vision is drastically impaired, cataract removal surgery can be more complicated. If your hypermature cataracts are left untreated, there is an increased risk of glaucoma due to inflammation and pressure within the eye.

Are cataracts preventable?

No studies have proven how to prevent cataracts, and sometimes, due to ageing, cataracts can be inevitable.

There are lifestyle-related risk factors that can increase your chances of getting cataracts. These include:

  • alcohol: as heavy alcohol consumption can produce free radicals that lead to lens protein aggregation
  • smoking: as people who smoke are more likely to develop cataracts
  • obesity: as excess weight can release leptin, which causes oxidative stress that may damage the eye
  • nutritional deficiency: as low levels of vitamin C, E and carotenoids could make it more likely to develop cataracts.

It is possible to lower your risk of cataracts by making lifestyle changes such as stopping smoking, reducing alcohol intake, and keeping to a balanced diet.

Cataracts treatment

Although you cannot prevent cataracts, you can get regular eye checks to monitor the progression and try to intervene early. If you think you could be developing cataracts, see an ophthalmologist for a professional eye exam. There is surgery available to help remove certain forms of cataracts.

Cataract surgery involves removing the cataract and inserting an artificial lens. The procedure improves vision significantly in the vast majority of patients and takes about 15 minutes to complete.

For more information about cataract surgery, please read our article on how to treat cataracts.

When to seek medical help

It’s important to have regular eye checks with specialists, ensuring that any vision problems are corrected.

We offer a full range of ophthalmology treatments and surgical procedures for visual impairments and eye conditions including cataracts. Receive an expert level of care and unparalleled service from our internationally renowned consultant ophthalmologists. Contact our dedicated customer services team to learn more.