Coping with age-related cataracts

Senior female undergoes eye examination by an optometrist

Around 200,000 people have a cataract operation in the UK each year to improve their sight. If you're concerned about developing cataracts, we reveal the symptoms, risk factors and treatment options available.

Who gets cataracts?
The risk of developing a cataract increases with age. Those with a family history of cataracts, smokers, and people who have been overexposed to bright sunlight or have taken steroid medication over a long period, are also at increased risk. Sometimes cataracts can be linked to trauma or health issues, such as diabetes.

Early warning signs
A clouding of the lens can occur in one or both eyes. In a healthy person, the lens is clear and helps focus light on the retina at the back of the eye to form a sharp image. This image is sent along the optic nerve to your brain where it is translated into a picture. As the cataract develops, the clouding becomes larger and more dense, causing the image to become less sharp and limiting your vision.

Most people over the age of 65 have some changes in their lens, but not all will experience symptoms, and most of us will develop a cataract in time. A sight problem usually develops over several years and typically results in blurred or cloudy vision. Some people have problems with glare and are easily dazzled by vehicle headlights and sunshine. Others notice that colours appear faded, have problems seeing in dim or bright light, and find that reading and watching television is more difficult. If you experience any of the above symptoms, see your optician straight away. Although they can indicate a cataract, they can be a sign of other eye conditions – so it's best to get it checked out.

Reduce your risk
You can help reduce your risk of developing cataracts by always wearing sunglasses when out in bright sunshine. Choose a pair with a CE mark, UV400 label or statement that they offer 100% UV protection. Stopping smoking will also significantly reduce your risk.

A visit to your optician should tell you whether you have a cataract, and confirm how much of your vision is affected with a simple sight test. If your vision is only slightly affected and not causing difficulties, you will probably not be offered treatment. At this stage, changing the prescription of your glasses or using a brighter light for close up work may be all that's required.

Your optician will suggest you have regular eye tests to check the progress of the cataract. People under the age of 70 should have a vision test every two years. If you're 70 or over, you should have an eye check every year – to check the health of your eye as well as your vision.

If the cataract is causing practical difficulties, for example, you're having problems with glare, struggling to read road signs or have difficulty recognising people's faces, the optician may refer you to a consultant ophthalmologist (eye specialist) at the hospital.

Once they have checked your eye, they may suggest an operation to replace the cloudy lens with a clear plastic lens, and may be able to correct for short or long sight at the same time, so that your overall eyesight improves too. If you have a cataract in each eye, they will treat one at a time. The operation is usually performed under local anaesthetic.

If you live on your own and already have a sight problem which means you rely on the vision of the eye to be operated on, speak to the consultant. They may be able to contact Social Services and help you arrange some support at home, just while you recover from the surgery.

Recovery after the operation
You may experience some blurring and minor discomfort immediately after the operation. Your vision should gradually start to improve and be noticeably better 10-14 days after the operation.

The doctor or nurse will explain how and when to use the eye drops they prescribe. As you recover, avoid doing anything too strenuous and be careful with your eye. You shouldn't go swimming and take care when washing your hair to avoid getting soapy water in your eyes. You'll need to attend a follow-up appointment a few weeks after surgery to check how it's healing. This is a good time to raise any concerns you may have about driving and ask about getting new glasses.

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