August 8th, 2008
12:10 PM ET

Clear conversation on cataracts

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer


I come from a family of cataract sufferers.    My father had cataract surgery a few years ago. My mother has the beginning of cataracts.   So does my husband.  Even my dog has a cataract!


A cataract is the clouding of the eye's crystalline lens.  When we're born, the lens is clear.  As we age it begins to build up a film producing a cataract. Doctors say people who are developing cataracts begin to notice that they have glare and halos at night.  They don't want to drive in the evening.  They might have double vision from one eye.  They need more light to read or they can't read as long as they'd like. 


Everyone who ages will eventually get a cataract.  The good news, it takes time.  According to Dr. Marguerite McDonald, an ophthalmologist at NYU  "cataracts usually grow very slowly throughout life."  That's why I always thought cataracts affected older folks, usually over the age of 60. In the United States, about 50 percent of those between the ages 65 and 74, and 70 percent of those over age 75 have a cataract.


Women are affected more frequently than men. African Americans lose their vision from cataracts at twice the rate of Caucasian Americans, primarily due to lack of treatment.  But now eye doctors are saying younger people are becoming more susceptible to developing cataracts because of a number of factors.


Let's start with the sun.  Lots of young people need to watch their sun exposure.  Dr. McDonald says "the only effective thing you can do to retard the formation of cataracts is to wear UV-blocking sunglasses and to put a UV blocking clear coating on your regular glasses."   I'm lucky, because I always wear my sunglasses ... even indoors while shopping.   But if you don't like wearing sunglasses, wear a hat or anything with a  brim to keep the sun out out your eyes.


And, ophthalmologists say, check your family history.   Since both my parents have cataracts, I need to let my eye doctor know so he can keep an watch on any signs of early cataract growth.


Diabetes is also a factor.   The condition is one of the main causes for fast forming cataracts.   So physicians say watch what you eat; avoid fatty, sugary foods.  And get off the couch.   Keeping fit and eating a good diet can keep anyone from developing  Type 2 diabetes.


Smoking and alcohol can also increase the risk for cataracts.  People who smoke 20 or more cigarettes a day have twice the risk of nonsmoker of developing cataracts ... and long term abuse of alcohol can rob the body of certain vitamins ... that can lead to early cataract development.


And watch what  medications you are taking.  Certain meds can cause early cataracts, especially steroids.  But drugs for heart conditions, cholesterol and epilepsy can also produce premature cataracts.  So it's best to talk with your family doctors about the prescriptions you're taking.


Are you developing cataracts?  How much of a problem are they?   Let us know.


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