Cataracts: What seniors need to know

Cloudy lenses, blurry vision may be signs of a common age-related eye problem

Cataracts: What seniors need to know

If you haven’t thought much about cataracts, there are important things to consider as you or a loved one get older. One is that age is the greatest risk factor. Most cataracts start to develop when a person is between 40 and 50 years old.

Learn what Shelby Potkin, M.D., a specialist in ophthalmology for Sanford Bemidji Eye Center & Optical, says about cataracts.

What are cataracts?

There is a part inside the eye called the lens which helps us focus light. It is normally clear, but it gets cloudy as we grow older. When it gets so cloudy that it becomes hard to see through, we call it a cataract.

What are the types of cataracts?

The most common type of cataract is an age-related cataract. It’s a normal part of life, just like hair getting whiter. This typical cataract causes a cloudiness slowly over the years and gets worse with time. There are also more rare types of cataracts that grow more quickly.

What causes cataracts?

The majority of cataracts are normal age-related changes. Getting hit in the eye very hard can cause a cataract to quickly form, and some medications can also cause cataracts. Uncontrolled diabetes can contribute to their development too.

Who is at risk?

The average age for cataract surgery is late 60s or early 70s. However, I have taken cataracts out of patients as young as 21 and as old as 94. It can be a very wide range.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptom is constant blurriness that slowly worsens over months and is not helped by glasses or artificial tears. As the cataract grows, it causes a person to need a stronger glasses prescription to overcome it, but at some point even the best pair of glasses in the world is not enough to see past the cataract.

Glare at night, especially with oncoming headlights, is another common symptom. Some people also notice a yellowing of colors or loss of contrast sensitivity. Some people even see double or triple vision from a cataract.

When should a person see a doctor?

If you are over the age of 65, I recommend an annual eye exam to look for cataracts and other common problems like glaucoma or diabetic eye disease. Of course, if you are noticing specific issues, it’s always a good idea to get checked out.

What are the treatment options?

The only treatment for a cataract is surgery. After the cataract is removed, I place an artificial lens into the eye to improve vision. There are some excellent choices for artificial lenses. For example, there are models that will give the patient sharp reading and distance vision with minimal dependence on glasses. There are even adjustable lenses that can be customized after surgery using lasers.

Who is a good candidate for cataract surgery?

A good candidate would be someone who is not noticing any improvement with their glasses and feels their vision is bad enough to limit their daily activities. Cataract surgery is typically a short procedure. Usually, it takes me about 15 minutes to completely remove a cataract and place a new artificial lens. Sometimes a difficult cataract can take up to an hour or so.

What is the recovery time?

Most of my patients can see well enough to drive themselves to their clinic appointment the day after surgery. I tell them to expect slowly improving vision over the first few days to a week. Sometimes, if the cataract is very dense or the surgery was challenging, I tell them to expect a longer recovery period of slowly improving vision. There is usually a mild feeling of scratchiness for the first day or two, like there is an eyelash stuck in the eye.

Are there ways to prevent cataracts?

You can’t completely prevent them, but you can slow them down by protecting your eyes from the sun. There is a mild association between cataract formation and UV exposure, so hats and sunglasses are a good idea, especially in the summer.

How can someone support a loved one going through treatment and recovery?

Thankfully, the recovery period is fairly quick and painless for most patients. I tell my patients to take it easy for the week after surgery by avoiding heavy lifting, bending, straining or eye rubbing. It’s helpful if family members can be available to assist their loved one with household chores and self-care.

What message would you like to share with seniors and the community about cataract awareness and prevention?

Cataract surgery is the most common surgery in the U.S., and it has excellent success rates. There are always risks involved with any surgery, but cataract surgery is a fairly straightforward procedure with fast recovery for most patients.

Do you have anything else to add about senior eye health?

Good vision is extremely important for one’s quality of life. One of the things I love best about my field is how quickly a patient can go from poor eyesight to excellent vision with a short procedure. It is very rewarding to be able to make such an impact on people’s lives.

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Posted In Bemidji, Eye Care, Senior Services, Specialty Care