Cataracts currently affect over 22 million Americans who are 40 or older, and as the population ages, more than 30 million Americans are expected to exhibit cataract symptoms by the year 2020. (1) By current standards, pretty much everyone who lives into the golden years of their 80s or 90s will have to deal with cataract symptoms, a highly common health issue affecting the eyes.
What’s it like to have cataracts? Imagine looking at everything through a fogged-up window and you’ll have somewhat of any idea what a cataract sufferer deals with.
While cataracts are certainly more common in the older members of the population, it’s possible to have cataracts when you’re younger. Even dogs and children can develop cataracts and experience cataract symptoms. Most cataracts are small and won’t bother your vision if you get them in your 40s or 50s. However, it’s when you’re over 60 that most cataracts start to cause noticeable changes to the ability to see and cataract symptoms begin to get worse. (2)
What causes cataracts? It’s not just aging. Poor lifestyle choices and other chronic health conditions can be contributing factors. The most common treatment for cataracts that impair vision is to have them surgically removed, but is surgery absolutely necessary? Research in 2015 is pointing toward an even simpler solution — eye drops that contain an organic compound that dissolves what forms cataracts in the first place. There are also scientifically backed and natural ways to prevent cataract formation, like getting a higher dietary intakes of eye vitamins from food and supplements. (3) So yes, there are natural ways that you can prevent and slow the progression of these blurry-vision invaders and keep cataract symptoms at bay.
What Are Cataracts?
To put the cataract definition into simple terms — a cataract is a clouding of the eye’s natural lens. Cataracts are the most common cause of vision loss in people over 40. They’re also the main cause of blindness around the world. (4)
Around the not-so-old age bracket of the mid-40s, the human eye begins to experience biochemical changes involving the proteins within its lens. These proteins harden and lose elasticity, which can then lead to vision problems. One of the most common examples of this phenomenon is far-sightedness or the need for reading glasses in most people as they get older. For some, the proteins in the lens (specifically the alpha crystallins) may clump together, forming cloudy areas on the eye lens called cataracts. (5)
What is the lens, and why is it important? The lens, which lies behind the iris and the pupil, is a clear part of the eye that helps us to focus light or an image on the retina. The retina is the light-sensitive tissue located at the back of the eye. In a healthy eye, light passes through the transparent lens to the retina. When the light reaches the retina, it’s changed into nerve signals that are sent to the brain. In order to see a clear image, your eye’s lens must be clear. When the lens is literally clouded by a cataract, you end up seeing an inaccurate, blurred image.
Cataracts don’t appear out of nowhere. Typically, it takes them several years to slowly develop. The density and location of a cataract determine the way in which it blocks the passage of light through the eye lens. A noticeable cataract blocks the transmission of light to the point that the formation of images on the retina are affected and your vision becomes generally foggy.
There are three different types of cataracts, named according to their locations:
- Nuclear cataracts grow in the nucleus (inner core) of the eye’s lens. This is the most common type of cataract associated with aging.
- Cortical cataracts develop in the cortex (outer section of the lens).
- Posterior subcapsular cataracts form toward the back of a cellophane-like capsule that surrounds the lens. These are most common in people who are diabetic, overweight or taking steroids.
Cataracts can also be classified by cause: (6)
- Age-related cataracts form as result of aging.
- Congenital cataracts occur in babies who are born with cataracts as a result of an infection, injury or poor development before birth. They can also develop during childhood.
- Secondary cataracts are a result of other medical conditions, such as diabetes, or exposure to toxic substances, certain drugs (such as corticosteroids or diuretics), ultraviolet light or radiation.
- Traumatic cataracts develop as the result of an injury to the eye.
When you first start to develop a cataract, it might only change the vision in just a small area your eye. You might not even notice that you have any vision loss. However, as the cataract grows larger, it clouds more of your eye’s lens, and the cataract symptoms become more obvious.
Cataract symptoms can vary due to the location of the cataract in the eye (nuclear, cortical or posterior subcapsular).
Common cataract symptoms include: (7)
- Cloudy or blurred vision
- Sensitivity to light and glare
- Increasing difficulty with night vision
- Seeing “halos” around lights
- Fading or yellowing of colors
- Double vision in a single eye
- Frequent changes in eyeglass or contact lens prescription
- Difficulty reading due to reduced black-white contrast
These cataract symptoms can also overlap with other eye problems so check with your eye care professional.
There are some common misconceptions when it comes to cataracts. It’s good to know that a cataract is not a film over the eye. It’s not caused by overusing the eyes and cannot be spread from one eye to the other. It’s also not a cause of irreversible blindness since surgery can remove cataracts. (8)
Cataract Causes and Risk Factors
There are many factors that put people at risk for cataracts, including: (9)
- Age —Aging is definitely the primary risk factor and cause of cataracts. The older you are, the more likely you are to have cataracts. Pretty much anyone who lives into elderly years will develop cataracts to some degree.
- Gender — Women have a higher risk than men.
- Race and ethnicity — African-Americans have nearly twice the risk of developing cataracts as Caucasians. This is likely because African-Americans are more likely to have diabetes, a risk factor for cataracts. Hispanic Americans are also more likely than Caucasians to develop cataracts.
- Family history — Cataracts tend to run in families.
- Glaucoma — Glaucoma and glaucoma treatments create higher cataract risk. The glaucoma drugs that can increase risk for cataracts include demecarium (Humorsol), isoflurophate (Floropryl) and echothiophate (Phospholine).
- Myopia — Nearsighted (myopic) people are at greater risk.
- Uveitis — This rare chronic inflammation in the eye often caused by an autoimmune disease or response creates a high risk for cataracts.
- Previous physical injury or surgery — A significant physical injury to the eye or intraocular eye surgery increases risk.
- Diabetes — Type 1 or 2 diabetics are at very high risk for developing cataracts and much more likely to develop them younger.
- Obesity — Often associated with type 2 diabetes type, it may also be a risk factor for cataracts.
- Autoimmune diseases and conditions requiring steroid use — Autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis and other medical conditions that need long-term steroid use can increase cataract likelihood.
- Overexposure to sunlight — Being exposed to UVB radiation from sunlight increases the risk for cataracts, especially nuclear cataracts. The risk may be greatest among people who had significant sun exposure in their youth. Having a job that requires prolonged exposure to sunlight also increases risk.
- Smoking and alcohol use — Smoking a pack a day of cigarettes doubles the risk of developing cataracts. Chronic heavy drinkers are also at great risk for cataracts and other eye problems.
- Environmental factors — Long-term environmental lead exposure may increase the risk of developing cataracts. Gold and copper accumulation may also cause cataracts. Prolonged exposure to ionizing radiation (such as X-rays) can increase cataract risk.
Conventional Treatment for Cataract Symptoms
Early cataract symptoms can be improved with the use of new prescription eyeglasses, brighter lighting, anti-glare sunglasses and magnifying lenses. Conventional medicine says that cataracts don’t go away on their own, but some cataracts develop to a certain point and then stop. Even when a cataract does continue to develop, it may be years before it interferes with your vision.
It’s very rare for people to need immediate cataract surgery. Before opting for surgery, you should consider how severely cataract symptoms interfere with your quality of life. Since it’s rarely an emergency situation, you should have time to carefully consider the risks and benefits of surgery.
Cataract surgery is an outpatient procedure, which means you should be able to go home the same day that you have the surgery. An ophthalmologist (a medical doctor who specializes in the eyes) performs the procedure in less than an hour. Surgery consists of removing the cataract and replacing the abnormal lens with a permanent implant called an intraocular lens.
More than 3 million Americans get cataract surgery each year, making it the most frequently performed surgery in the U.S. Nine out of 10 people who undergo cataract surgery regain perfect or close to perfect vision, typically somewhere between 20/20 and 20/40.
Recovery from surgery usually takes around two weeks. If you have cataracts in both eyes, doctors recommend waiting at least one month between removal surgeries. After cataract surgery you could benefit from eyeglasses that have lenses with a special blue light filter, especially if you spend a lot of time looking at a computer screen or using other digital devices.
However, as with all surgery, there are risks, and surgery always has the chance of being dangerous. The good news there are natural ways you can treat cataract symptoms without the risks that come with surgery.
Natural Cataract Symptoms Prevention and Treatment
It’s said that cataracts aren’t completely preventable, but everyone seems to agree that their occurrence can definitely be delayed. And some health professionals and scientists do believe that cataracts can be prevented.
Studies suggest certain nutrients and nutritional supplements may reduce your risk of cataracts. Additionally, some very easy yet effective ways to prevent cataracts include avoiding excessive sunlight exposure, limiting alcohol consumption, quitting smoking, and eating plenty of fresh veggies and fruits.
The more antioxidants you can get from consuming fruits and vegetables, the better your chances are of warding off cataract develop. The lens of the eye contains protective enzymes that ideally break down proteins that can clump together and form cataracts. By consuming more high-antioxidant foods, you protect your eyes from oxidative stress that contributes to cataracts. Antioxidants also help to maintain the enzymatic pathways that prevent cataract formation. (10)
- Fresh fruits and vegetables — In general, fresh fruits and vegetables are excellent for eye health. Fruits and vegetables have high levels of important plant chemicals called phytochemicals. The phytonutrients are antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents that have been shown to help prevent or delay the progression of eye disease, including cataracts. (11) Studies have also shown that vegetarians and vegans have a significantly lower risk of cataracts than meat eaters, predominantly in the elderly. However, the research does not show that eating meat promotes cataracts — rather that eating a lot of vegetables is protective to eye health. (12)
- Vitamin A (beta-carotene)-rich foods — Vitamin A has been shown to prevent loss of vision caused by degenerative conditions like cataracts and macular degeneration. A lack of vitamin A causes the cornea to become very dry, which can lead to clouding of the front of the eye, corneal ulcers and vision loss. Vitamin A deficiency can also damage the retina, which also contributes to blindness. (13) Carrots, sweet potatoes and dark leafy greens are some great choices to get more of this vision-improving nutrient.
- Vitamin C-rich foods — Vitamin C intake has been linked to a lower cataract risk, especially in people who tend to be deficient in this key nutrient. (14) Excellent vitamin C foods include peppers, citrus fruits, berries, tropical fruits, broccoli and tomatoes.
- Vitamin E-rich foods — Studies have shown that vitamin E reduces cataract formation. (15) The top 10 vitamin E food sources include almonds, spinach, wheat germ and sweet potato.
- Zinc-rich foods — According to the American Optometric Association, zinc deficiency has also been tied to cloudy vision and poor night vision since it helps bring vitamin A from the liver into the retina. (16) Grass-fed beef, kefir, yogurt, chickpeas and pumpkin seeds all rich in zinc.
- Lutein and zeaxanthin — These are the two carotenoids that have been most studied for cataract prevention. They are super antioxidants found together in many vegetables. They’re also found together in the lenses of the eyes. Lutein and zeaxanthin filter harmful high-energy blue wavelengths of light and help protect and maintain healthy eye cells. One study found that people with diets high in foods rich in zeaxanthin, particularly spinach, kale and broccoli, are up to 50 percent less likely to develop cataracts. Other foods rich in lutein and zeaxanthin include eggs, collard greens, turnip greens and corn.
- Fish and omega-3 foods — Regularly eating fatty fish like salmon and other foods like chia seeds that are rich omega-3 fatty acid, has been linked to a potentially reduced risk of cataracts or their progression. (17) One study found that women who ate fish at least three times a week rather than less than once a month lowered their risk of cataracts, and overall, total fish intake was inversely associated with cataract formation. (18)
2. Supplements and Herbs
If you can’t get enough of any of the nutrients above in food, high-quality supplements are an option for natural cataract prevention and treatment. However, I highly recommend getting these nutrients from food as much as possible. The majority of studies qualifying these nutrients as helpful have been done with food rather than supplements.
There is no recommended daily intake for lutein and zeaxanthin, but most studies show benefits from taking 10 milligrams per day of a lutein supplement and two milligrams day of a zeaxanthin supplement. (19)
Bilberry is known for its awesome benefits to the eyes. Bilberry fruit contains chemicals called anthocyanosides (plant pigments that have excellent antioxidant properties) and vitamin C. Bilberry’s ability to scavenge free radicals makes it an excellent choice for multiple age-related ocular disorders. It’s shown protective effects against cataracts as well as macular degeneration and glaucoma. Bilberry standardized extract (80 milligrams two to three times daily) has been used traditionally to reduce the risk of cataracts.
3. Sun Protection
UV light exposure can oxidize proteins in the eye, changing their structure and contributing to cataract development. Increased exposure to sunlight has been linked to increased cataract risk. (20) Wearing sunglasses and a hat with a brim to block ultraviolet sunlight can help delay the formation of a cataract.
Protective sunglasses don’t have to be expensive, but opt for ones that block 100 percent of UV rays. (21) While it’s a good idea to limit daily exposure to computers and other devices that give off blue light, it’s important get some light from the sun each day for the sake of your eyes and overall health.
4. Lifestyle Modifications
Decreasing alcohol consumption and quitting smoking are two lifestyle choices that can majorly decrease your cataract risk. Studies have shown that daily consumption of one or more alcoholic drinks was associated with a modest increase of risk for cataract, but this risk increased with greater alcohol consumption. (22)
Smoking has a negative effect on every aspect of health, including eye health. Smoking definitely contributes to cataract development. Research has shown that if you stop smoking, you don’t necessarily lower your risk of cataracts, but you do stop accumulating greater risk. If you haven’t quit already, here is yet another reason to stop now.
5. Eye Drops
In the future, a simple and non-invasive treatment for cataracts might be eye drops. Researchers have discovered that an organic compound called lanosterol can improve vision by dissolving the clumped proteins that form cataracts.
In a recently published study conducted at the University of California, eye drops containing lanosterol completely cleared the vision of three dogs with naturally occurring cataracts after six weeks of treatment. The eye drops need several more years of human studies and likely might not work on aggressive cataracts, but hopefully they might become another option for cataract treatment in the near future. (23)
Stats on Cataracts
- Cataracts are a common age-related vision problem.
- Over 22 million Americans age 40 and older have cataracts.
- As the U.S. population ages, more than 30 million Americans are expected to have cataracts by the year 2020.
- Cataracts cause vision problems for 94 million people worldwide.
- Cataracts are linked to nearly half of the world’s cases of blindness, primarily in low-income countries that lack access to surgery.
- Millions of cataract operations are performed each year in the U.S.
- The older a person gets, the greater the risk for developing cataracts.
- Women are more likely to develop cataracts than men.
- African-Americans and Hispanic Americans are at particularly high risk.
- Other factors that increase the risk of cataract development include diabetes, smoking, overexposure to sunlight and certain medications like steroids.
- About one in every 10,000 births, a baby is born with cataracts, called congenital cataracts.
- Nuclear cataracts are the most common type of cataract associated with the aging process. They form in the nucleus (inner core) of the eye’s lens.
- Some people develop cataracts during in their 40s and 50s, but these cataracts tend to be very small.
- After age 60, cataracts are most likely to affect vision.
- By age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery.
- Cataract development in diabetics is significantly related to high levels of blood sugar (hyperglycemia).
- Diabetics have a higher risk for nuclear cataracts than nondiabetics.
- There are more cases of cataracts worldwide than there are of glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy combined, according to Prevent Blindness America.
- Smoking a pack a day of cigarettes doubles the risk of developing cataracts.
- Smokers are at particular risk for cataracts located in the nuclear portion of the lens, which limit vision more severely than cataracts in other sites.
Cataract Symptoms Precautions
If you notice any changes to your vision, you should always get an eye exam as soon as possible. If you suddenly have have severe vision changes, like double vision, then see a doctor right away. Left untreated, cataracts can continue to grow and progress and eventually cause blindness.
Most patients do well with cataract surgery and recover quickly. If you also have macular degeneration or glaucoma, then it’s possible that your outcome may not be as good. Poorer vision or blindness are not likely but are possible, so no one should be forced into cataract surgery. It’s also a good idea to get a second opinion of a qualified ophthalmologist if you feel unsure about surgery.
Complications of cataract surgery can include:
- Infection or bleeding.
- Swelling and inflammation can occur in the days or weeks after cataract surgery. The risk is about 1 percent. It can be a particularly harmful complication for patients with existing uveitis (a chronic inflammation in the eye).
- In rare cases, the retina at the back of the eye can become detached. Make sure to report floaters, flashes of light or a curtain-like vision loss to your ophthalmologist immediately. These symptoms may indicate a retinal detachment has occurred.
- Glaucoma is an eye condition in which the pressure of fluids inside the eye rises dangerously. Risk is very low, but patients should definitely avoid activities after surgery that increase pressure on the eyes.
- Poorer vision or blindness.
If you take medication or have any ongoing health concerns, always speak with a health professional before taking any new supplements. Bilberry may increase the risk of bleeding, especially if you take blood-thinning medication or aspirin. It may also lower blood sugar.
Final Thoughts on Cataract Symptoms
- The older we get, the more likely cataracts become. Over 22 million Americans who are 40 or older currently have cataracts to some degree.
- Cataracts don’t appear out of nowhere. Typically, a cataract takes several years to slowly develop.
- Cataracts are not caused by overusing the eyes and cannot be spread from one eye to the other.
- Most people opt for surgery when cataracts really start to interfere with their vision, but there are natural ways to prevent and slow the progression of a cataract.
- The majority of studies have been done with foods rather than supplements so fresh, whole foods really are your best weapon against cataracts.
- Natural treatment can help cataracts stop progressing even if they don’t go away completely on their own.
- There might soon be eye drops containing an organic compound that non-invasively treat cataracts.
- A healthy lifestyle, especially a diet rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, is key to overall eye health.
- You’re never too young (or old) to start taking preventative measures against cataracts so start today no matter your age!
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