I have been diagnosed with cataracts, what does that mean?
Cataracts are not a disease, but rather a normal part of the aging process. A cataract is a clouding of one of the focusing lenses in the eye. As this lens gradually becomes more clouded, blurred vision, glare (especially at night) and halos are the result. A more subtle change is a gradual decrease in the perception of color intensity.
What is the treatment for cataracts?
Some people believe that a laser is used to treat cataracts, but that is usually that is not correct. Cataract removal is a surgery, albeit an outpatient one. When choosing to have cataract surgery, it is important to choose a surgeon who has performed many thousands of procedures and uses the latest techniques. In the hands of a good surgeon, cataract surgery may be the single most successful surgical procedure ever created, with more than a 95% success rate! It should be a 15-minute procedure, with no stitches and rapid visual recovery.
Prior to surgery, careful measurements are made to calculate the power of the clear implant lens that is used to replace the cloudy cataract. With this implant, the goal is to provide as close to perfect distance vision as possible. Many patients can see clearly at the distance for the first time in decades after this procedure. Reading glasses are still needed in most cases however. Because of this, any glasses you owned before cataract surgery are likely to not help anymore. Consider donating them to a charitable organization.
My experience is that the same person who is fearful of having the surgery on their first eye are positively impatient to have it on their second eye due to their excitement with the outcome! Finding a good surgeon is key however. You family optometrist is a great source for this information, since they have worked with many surgeons and know who does the best work.
Can cataracts grow back?
Cataracts can never recur after being removed. However, about 50% of patient will require a simple, in office laser procedure at some point after cataract surgery. This is because a cloudiness can develop behind the new implant lens and that needs to be cleared with a laser procedure. This is a safe, painless procedure that usually never needs repeating. The vision is cleared instantly after the procedure.
What are the main threats to my vision as I age?
Macular degeneration is by far the number one cause of vision loss in older Americans. This aging change causes a loss of the central, detail vision. Although no one goes blind from this condition, losing the ability to read, drive and manage our finances can be a devastating loss. Imagine being able to see the newspaper, but not to be able to read it. Imagine seeing someone across the street, but not being able to see who they are, or to read prices in a store, or to read your mail or computer.
There is hope for macular degeneration though. Promising treatments are being developed for macular degeneration. Ways to prevent macular degeneration are being developed as well. Your best bet currently is to have an annual eye exam, wear UV protective lenses when outside (sunglasses), to not smoke and to use certain nutritional supplements if advised by your doctor. The most important supplement seems to be lutein, which may reduce the risk of macular degeneration by more than 25%.
Another major threat to vision is called glaucoma. Glaucoma is a slowly progressive disease that can lead to TOTAL blindness if undetected / untreated. Since glaucoma usually has no symptoms (it is often called the “sneak thief of sight”), it is critical to have annual eye exams once you are older than age 50. When detected early, treatment for glaucoma is usually pretty straightforward, by simply using one eye drop per day in the effected eye(s). With new technology, we can diagnose glaucoma up to a decade earlier than we were able to just a few years ago. The earlier the condition is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat.
My eyes burn and sting regularly. Why is this happening?
As we age, we tend to produce fewer tears and they tend to evaporate more quickly. This results in dry spots on the eye that cause feelings of grittiness, burning, and discomfort. Unfortunately, dry eye has been shown to be greatly undertreated by most eye doctors. Simply using artificial tears usually provides temporary relief at most. However, we have a number of more advanced treatments that can provide lasting relief for many patients.
If you or your loved one over the age of 50 has not had an eye exam in the past year, then it is critical to have an eye exam to look for the conditions above, as well as many less common problems. As we age, our prescription eyeglasses can often be stable, but that should not be confused as a reason to not have an eye exam to check the medical health of your eyes.