The lens of your eye, which focuses light on the retina at the back of the eyeball, is normally colorless and clear. With age, however, the lens may grow cloudy and opaque, impairing your vision—a condition called a cataract.
Although cataract surgery, in which the lens is removed, is almost always successful, cataracts are still a major cause of treatable blindness worldwide. In the United States, over a million cataract operations are performed each year, accounting for about 12 percent of the entire Medicare budget.
Cataracts were thought to be an inevitable part of growing older: as you age, the lens of your eye deteriorates. However, there’s hope that with good health habits you may be able to postpone or in some cases prevent cataracts.
Symptoms of Cataracts
- Gradual, painless blurring and/or dimming of vision
- Increased sensitivity to light; poor vision in sunlight or glaring light (such as car headlights)
- Halos encircling lights; sometimes the impression of a film over the eyes
- Diminishing color perception (as cataracts progress)
- In advanced cases, cloudy appearance of the lens, so that the normally black pupil turns milky white
What Causes Cataracts?
Though aging is the single greatest risk factor, lifelong exposure to ultraviolet light appears to be a primary cause in promoting cataracts, which are most common in regions where the duration and intensity of sunlight are greatest.
In addition, it’s long been suspected that drinking alcohol and smoking increases your risk of cataracts, and that the risk rises with the number of cigarettes smoked. The Journal of the American Medical Association has published two studies (one involving 17,000 male physicians, the other 69,000 female nurses), both of which showed a strong association between cigarette smoking and cataracts, with the heaviest smokers running the greatest risk. An accompanying editorial estimated that at least 20 percent of all cataracts could be attributed to smoking.
Finally, there is some evidence suggesting that dietary factors may affect your risk of cataracts. Carotenoids—a family of nutrients not classified as vitamins but similar to them—appear to be especially important. Some carotenoids can be detected in high concentrations in eye tissues. They function as antioxidants—that is, they neutralize damage to cells caused by free radicals (highly reactive oxygen molecules), which are created by such factors as sunlight and exposure to cigarette smoke. People who regularly eat lots of carotenoid-rich foods (which include leafy greens, corn, kiwis, and other green, red, or yellow fruits and vegetables) seem to have the healthiest eyes. Vitamins C and E, other antioxidants, may also help prevent cataracts.
In younger people, diabetes can cause cataracts. And taking certain medications (such as corticosteroids for inflammation) for long periods is linked to the formation of cataracts in some people. Severe dehydration can also cause cataracts.
What If You Do Nothing?
Cataracts will usually worsen gradually, and eventually you may need surgery to correct the problem. But in most cases cataracts develop very slowly, and you may be able to postpone surgery or avoid it altogether. Increasing knowledge about the risk factors for cataracts makes it likely that their rate of progression can be slowed even further.
Home Remedies for Cataracts
Surgery is the only true cure for cataracts, but if cataracts aren’t interfering with normal activities, surgery can be postponed, sometimes indefinitely. In the meantime you can take steps to slow or minimize the impact of cataracts on your vision.
The following steps may help forestall or prevent cataracts as you grow older. Because the causes of cataracts are not completely understood, there is no guarantee that these measures will help. But they may, and some have obvious auxiliary benefits, including a lower risk of some cancers and heart disease.
- Wear ultraviolet-protective sunglasses. This is the most important step you can take to prevent additional damage to your eyes. Sunglasses with lenses tinted yellow, brown, or amber will absorb blue light, which is the light most readily scattered—and so transformed into glare—by incipient cataracts.
- Wash your eyes frequently with cool water to reduce eye strain.
- Outdoors, wear a hat with a brim or visor. The right hat can reduce glare. Sitting under an umbrella also helps minimize glare. Try to stay in the shade as much as possible rather than in direct sunlight.
- If you smoke, quit. No one knows exactly how smoking damages the lens, but smokers are about twice as likely to develop cataracts as nonsmokers.
- Perform exercises to strengthen the eye muscles and help maintain the overall health of the eyes.
- Eat a diet high in carotenoids. Two large studies of health-care professionals suggest that foods rich in two carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, are associated with a lower risk of cataracts. The best sources for lutein are corn, kale, spinach, and other dark leafy greens, pumpkin, zucchini, yellow squash, red grapes, and green peas; for zeaxanthin, orange bell peppers, oranges, corn, honeydew melon, and mango. (Of course, these are not the only beneficial carotenoids you should eat, but they scored high in this study.)
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
If you notice any symptoms of cataracts, consult your ophthalmologist.
What Your Doctor Will Do
The ophthalmologist will perform an eye exam to determine the presence and stage of any cataract formation. If recommended, surgery for cataracts involves removal of the lens and replacement with an intraocular lens implanted in the eye, or with a contact lens, or with eyeglasses. Surgery is usually performed on an outpatient basis. Treatment is safe and 90 percent effective at improving vision.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media