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Facebook Fan Submitted Topic # 5: What causes cataracts?

We asked for suggestions from our Facebook fans for blog posts and we got some great responses.   This is the fifth of  5 posts on Dr.  Beach’s blog  to be based on these topics/questions.

Michael, a CEC Facebook fan, asks:    “What causes cataracts because I know my grandparent had it.”

Hey Michael.   Cataracts are the number one cause of reversible blindness in the world, so it’s a pretty important topic.   I say reversible blindness, because cataract surgery is used to remove the cataract to restore vision, which I’ll touch on in a minute.

Before we get into what causes a cataract, it’s important to answer the question,  “What is a cataract?”   A cataract is a cloudiness that occurs within the crystalline lens inside the eye.   The crystalline lens is made entirely of proteins.  It’s the arrangement of these proteins during embryonic development that gives the lens its clarity and focusing properties.   Over time, these proteins may start to clump together or alter their arrangement.   Once that arrangement of proteins changes, clarity is lost and haziness develops within the crystalline lens.  The result is cloudy vision, almost like looking out a foggy windshield.   There are different types of cataracts based on where within the lens they develop.

So, what causes cataracts?    The number one cause is age.   As the lens ages, the proteins start to change and the lens becomes cloudy.  There is no specific age for cataract development.   In the clinic, I have seen age-related cataracts develop in patients in their 50’s and I’ve seen other patients in their 80’s with hardly any signs of cataracts.

Another factor in cataract development may be UV light exposure (sun bathing without sunglasses).   Also, nutrition and diet may influence cataracts and much discussion is being made regarding anti-oxidants in the prevention of cataract progression.   Trauma is yet another cause of cataract development.   Certain medications, such as oral prednisone or other corticosteroids, can cause cataracts.    Medical conditions, especially diabetes, can result in an earlier onset of cataracts as well.

While there have been false claims that certain eye drops can be  used to treat cataracts, the only cure is cataract surgery.   This outpatient procedure has seen great advances in recent years  in it’s efficiency, reduction of potential complications, and final vision results.   In essence, the cataract surgeon makes a small incision on the front surface of the eye, removes the natural crystalline lens containing the cataract, and a customized lens implant is put back in place.

Michael, thanks for the question.    It’s been a lot of fun answering questions from our Facebook fans these past two weeks.   It’s great to see such an interest in eye care!

Dr. Beach.