Cataracts are dense protein buildups that form in the eye’s typically clear lens, making it cloudy. These proteins make it difficult for light rays to pass through the lens onto the retina. People suffering from cataracts have cloudy vision almost akin to seeing through a fogged-up or frosty window.
In Australia, cataracts account for at least 14% of all eye conditions. Approximately one out of every seven Australians suffers from cataracts, making it among the biggest causes of vision loss among people aged 40 and above. Cataracts become more common as people age and in people with diseases like diabetes.
Perhaps the best reason why you should get periodic eye checkups is that cataracts often develop slowly, hardly affecting eyesight during the early stages because they do not have any symptoms. However, over time, cataracts eventually cause visual impairment. Fortunately, ophthalmologists can remove cataracts safely through surgery.
Common Causes of Cataracts
Age is arguably the biggest cause of cataracts. Proteins in the lens of the eye naturally degrade and denature as we age. Some diseases that become more prevalent as we get older, e.g., hypertension and diabetes mellitus, can accelerate protein degradation and denaturation.
Also, the cumulative effect of environmental factors such as too much sun exposure and toxins eventually cause a downward spiral in eye health. The change in chemical processes and gene expression within the eye gets worse due to the steady decline in protective and restorative mechanisms, making older people more susceptible to cataracts.
Blunt trauma to the eye may cause whitening, swelling and thickening of the eye’s lens fibers. Although the swelling gradually subsides with time, the whitening may remain permanently depending on the trauma’s magnitude.
In cases of severe blunt trauma or injuries that puncture the eye, the capsule that houses the eye’s lens can sustain severe damage. This damage may allow fluids from other sections of the eye to enter the lens rapidly, causing swelling and whitening that may ultimately prevent light rays from reaching the retina hidden in the innermost part of the eye. Blunt trauma is often responsible for petal-shaped and star-shaped cataracts.
Congenital cataracts are what doctors refer to when babies develop cataracts at a very early age. Factors such as infection, poor fetal development, and injury may cause these types of cataracts. Genetics play a significant role in cataract development, particularly through abnormalities in the mechanisms meant to maintain and protect the eye’s lens.
Specific syndromes and gene disorders are often responsible for cataract development in early life or childhood (juvenile cataract). Some common examples include:
- Down’s syndrome
- Deletion syndrome
- Neurofibromatosis type II
- Turner’s syndrome
- Myotonic dystrophy
- Alport’s syndrome
- Lowe syndrome
The most common secondary causes of cataracts include medical conditions such as diabetes, long-term exposure to toxins, radiation or ultraviolet light, and taking certain medicines, e.g., diuretics or corticosteroids.
Long-term exposure to specific kinds of radiation has been proven to cause cataracts. For instance, some forms of ionizing radiation like X-rays can cause DNA damage in lens cells. Research also shows that specific types of ultraviolet light, such as UVB (Ultraviolet B), can cause cataracts. Wearing sunglasses from an early age can prevent cataract development later on in life.
Some forms of nonionizing radiation like microwaves can denature protective enzymes, e.g., glutathione peroxidase, and cause cataracts through thermoelastic expansion. Protein coagulation resulting from heat and electric injuries often causes whitening in the lens. This is the same process that transforms an egg’s albumen from clear to white during cooking.
Some medications like topical, inhaled, or systemic corticosteroids escalate the chances of cataract development. Corticosteroids typically lead to posterior subcapsular cataracts.
Smoking and Alcohol Consumption
Research has proven that cigarette smoking doubles the chances of developing nuclear sclerotic cataracts. It also triples the risk of developing posterior subcapsular cataracts. While there is plenty of speculation on a possible link between alcohol consumption and cataract development, the evidence available is very conflicting.
It is common for cataracts to go unnoticed during the early stages. Some doctors may suggest magnifying lenses, sunglasses with antiglare coating, and stronger eyeglasses manage the symptoms during the onset of vision decline. However, surgery is the only option for people whose cataracts prevent them from performing daily activities.
Phacoemulsification and extracapsular surgery are among the most recommended methods by Brisbane cataract’s surgeons. These methods are generally safe and have high success rates. Dr. Cameron McLintock, a Brisbane-based ophthalmologist with a specialty in cataract surgery, offers phacoemulsification. You can book an appointment today by contacting his office.
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