Overview of Cataracts

What It Is: A clouding of the lens of your eye. "The lens is normally translucent like a piece of Saran wrap," explains James Salz, M.D., clinical professor of ophthalmology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. With a cataract, instead of looking at the world through plastic wrap, you're peering at it through wax paper. The result: Light scatters when it hits the retina, causing glare. Cataracts affect just one eye or both—and not always at the same time.

Symptoms: Blurry vision; sensitivity to light or trouble seeing at night especially with bright lights shining on you; fading or yellowing of colors; double vision.

What Causes It: Age. Some 22.3 million Americans 40 and older have cataracts; they usually show up in your 60s. Some medications up risk, including cortisone steroids and arthritis medicines, as can diabetes and long-term exposure to sunlight. An eye injury can also cause a cataract. "I had a patient who was hit in the eye by a golf club," says Dr. Salz, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "She developed a cataract 20 years later."

How It's Treated: Your doctor will monitor it. Sometimes changing your eyeglass prescription can improve any vision problems it causes. But when it affects your ability to function, your ophthalmologist will remove the clouded lens and replace it with an intraocular lens implant. A multifocal implant improves vision by letting you see up close and far away from the same eye. Accommodating lenses change shape as you focus near and far, in much the same way your natural lens does. Monovision lenses are implanted in both eyes, with one lens typically focused near for reading and the other far, for distance. The type you choose may come down to cost: Insurance and Medicare usually cover monovision lenses but not multifocal or accommodating lenses, which can run $2,000 to $3,000 per eye—about $800 to $1,500 more per eye than monovision lenses, says Dr. Salz.

How to Prevent: There's not much you can do. Sun exposure has been linked to cataracts, so wear UV-blocking sunglasses and a brimmed hat when you go outside. Since some vitamins may be good for eyes, take a daily multivitamin, advises Dr. Kaiser.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 15 Mar 2010

Last Modified: 03 Sep 2015