The statistics are alarming: By the year 2050, over the course of three short decades, the number of adults in the United States who will be either visually impaired or completely blind is expected to exceed 8 million, a figure that’s more than double today’s rates.
So why is some degree of vision loss in the cards for so many Americans? Although the answer is complex, it’s largely shaped by two factors — an aging population and a lack of awareness.
More Americans are growing older as the youngest members of the baby boomer generation advance toward retirement, and at the same time, only about half of all Americans receive comprehensive eye exams as recommended.
This perfect recipe for disaster means that the major eye diseases and conditions that tend to emerge later in life — including cataracts — aren’t being detected in their earliest stages, before vision loss occurs.
However, Dr. Brittni Rodriguez at Harlem VistaSite EyeCare in New York City is dedicated to helping you address these issues and protect your ocular health. Find out if you’re at risk for developing cataracts, and learn what you can do about it.
The lens of your eye, which is situated directly behind your cornea, iris, and pupil, helps focus light on your retina so you can see images clearly. About 70% of your eye’s focusing power comes from the exterior cornea, while the remaining 30% comes from the interior lens.
As with a healthy cornea, a healthy lens is transparent. Much like looking through a clean window, they each play an important role in feeding clear, precise images to your brain through your retina.
The lens inside your eye is mostly made up of water and protein. As you age, the protein may start to clump together, clouding the lens and reducing the amount of light that reaches your retina. As more protein clumps develop, the lens becomes increasingly hazy. Images then appear less clear and more distorted. Opaque or clouded lenses are called cataracts.
Because they’re usually a product of the natural aging process, cataracts are exceptionally common in middle-aged and older adults. In fact, more than 24 million Americans over the age of 40 have cataracts, and more than half of all Americans past the age of 80 either have some degree of cataract-related vision loss or have had surgery to remove a problematic cataract.
Cataract risk factors
As you’ve already gathered, advancing age is the main risk factor for cataracts. Although other factors can contribute to or influence their development, the normal wear-and-tear of everyday use can have a major impact on your eyes, causing the protein in your lenses to become less stable over time.
Other factors that can increase your risk of developing cataracts — or make them develop more quickly than normal — include:
- Having a family history of cataracts
- Being very overweight or obese
- Having diabetes or high blood pressure
- Smoking or excessive drinking
- Past eye injury, inflammation, or surgery
- Overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays
- Taking steroidal medications
While you may not be able to control the natural aging process, erase your family history, or counteract the long-term effects of a previous eye trauma, there’s plenty you can do to minimize or eliminate other major risk factors.
Know the symptoms
When a cataract is in its earliest stages, it’s generally too small to cause noticeable changes in vision. And because they also progress slowly, vision changes that do occur tend to be gradual, sometimes making them more difficult to perceive over time.
But given that cataracts rank as the leading cause of preventable vision loss in the U.S., it’s important to know what the major signs and symptoms are.
Cataracts can make your vision cloudy, dull, or blurry, and colors may seem less vibrant. At first, you may notice that you have to really focus your eyes just to see an object clearly; as the condition progresses, however, you may not be able to see clearly at all, no matter how hard you try.
Cataract development can also cause the lens in your eye to turn yellow or brown, tinting everything in your field of vision that same color. Although lens discoloration won’t interfere with the sharpness of your vision, it can make reading and other sight-intensive activities more difficult as the color darkens over time.
Apart from causing blurry, discolored, or darkened vision, cataracts can also give rise to double vision and make your eyes more sensitive to bright light, especially at night.
Reduce your risk
Having regular comprehensive eye exams is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of cataracts and cataract-related vision loss, as routine exams are the only way to spot the problem early on, before you experience obvious symptoms.
You can also reduce your risk of cataracts or slow their development by wearing sunglasses that offer 100% protection against damaging UVA/UVB light. Quitting smoking, drinking less alcohol, reaching a healthier body weight, and keeping chronic health conditions under control can also go a long way in reducing your risk of cataracts or slowing their development.
If you’d like to learn more about your personal cataract risk, the team at Harlem VistaSite Eye Care can help. Call our office or use the easy online tool to book an appointment today.