June is National Cataract Awareness Month.

According to the World Health Organization, cataracts cause 51 percent of world blindness. In my experience, this is definitely true. Fortunately, cataracts are treatable, and in the United States, cataracts only accounts for about 5 percent of blindness. This is mostly due to the wide availability of surgical treatment.

An amazing transformation

On surgical mission trips in Ghana and Bolivia, I have seen firsthand the effects of untreated cataracts and the amazing transformation after effective surgical treatment. One experience that was particularly meaningful involved a 56-year-old Bolivian woman brought in by her daughter. She was blind and required assistance for all daily activities for about one year. In the initial examination, she was only able to perceive movement of a hand across her vision. She was not able to even count fingers!

During the week, we performed cataract surgery on one of her eyes and on the following day she beamed.

As we checked her vision both she and I became more and more excited as she read down to the lowest line on the eye chart. How can such a short surgery make such an impact? It helps to understand what a cataract is and how it affects vision.

What is a cataract?

A cataract is the clouding of the natural lens of the eye. The lens is important to focus images on your retina so you can see. This lens has been with you your whole life and over time the clarity and color of the lens changes. As a result the vision may decrease.

The most common symptoms associated with cataracts are glare (like increasing starbursts or halos around lights) and blurred vision (especially in low light). The lens changes associated with cataract are painless and generally occur very slowly over many years.

What are the risk factors for cataracts?

The main risk factor for cataracts is age, as most lens changes are a result of the natural aging process.

Other factors include certain diseases (in particular diabetes), medications (including steroid containing medications), environmental exposures (to smoke or prolonged exposure to sunlight), and injuries to the eye.

The good news is that cataract surgery is widely available and generally has excellent results. With modern lens measurement technology, lens implants, and surgical techniques, cataract surgery can even correct nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism.

What is cataract surgery?

Cataract surgery is an outpatient procedure, meaning you only spend a few hours at the hospital or surgery center.

During the surgery, we remove the cataract (or cloudy lens) and replace it with an artificial lens. At home, after the surgery, most patients use eye drops to control inflammation and prevent infection. The recovery time after surgery varies, but in most cases patients see improved vision within the first week after surgery.

Who needs an eye exam?

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that all adults over the age of 65 have regular eye exams to monitor for cataracts and other vision-threatening conditions.  Cataracts are common and will affect nearly everyone who lives old enough. Fortunately, we can restore vision with cataract surgery vision.

Jeffery D. Young, MD, is an ophthalmologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and assistant professor at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at. the University of Vermont.

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