June is Cataract Awareness Month. Cataracts are defined as any clouding of the crystalline lens of the eye and is one of the most widespread eye diseases worldwide. As it is Cataract Awareness Month, Dr. Jeff Sciberras wants to pull back the veil on cataracts (pun intended) and spread awareness of this pernicious and often misunderstood disease to debunk myths and prepare you in the event you are diagnosed with cataract(s).
First, one should know the symptoms of cataracts. Before we get into that however, one thing should be made clear: if you are diagnosed with cataracts, it does not mean that you are doomed to becoming blind. Cataracts may not be all that noticeable to individuals in the early stages; such individuals might only notice that their vision is becoming slightly blurry or hazy, or requires better lighting to read for example. Other symptoms can include increased light sensitivity or glare, while others may notice colours becoming duller or having a yellowish tint.
Cataracts can progress if left untreated to cause significant deterioration in vision and potentially blindness. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that cataracts are the leading cause of preventable blindness, accounting for approximately half of all global cases. Cataracts are treated in an outpatient procedure where a small incision in the cornea is made to insert surgical instruments in order to remove the clouded lens, leaving in place the original lens shell, called a capsule, and replacing it (as the power of the original lens needs to be replenished) with an intraocular lens (IOL). The IOL is synthetic, and inert within the eye. The procedure is usually done under local anaesthesia, with the patient conscious and completed in about 15 minutes. Patients often ask if cataract surgery can be done with lasers. This is true, but the laser application is done to make incisions, where micro-blades would have been used, and to grind the cloudy lens into smaller pieces before being removed from the eye. Laser-assisted cataract surgery is meant to reduce the trauma the experiences in traditional cataract surgery, thereby reducing recovery time and improving visual outcomes.
In terms of numbers for those afflicted with cataracts, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) estimates that there are over 2.5 million Canadians that have cataracts. The prevalence of cataracts increases with age and our exposure to UV radiation over our lifetime. Those with diabetes are at increased risk of developing cataracts sooner in life, almost all Canadians over the age of 65 will have some level of lens clouding. Cataracts can develop over years, or even days, and the use of oral steroids increases their risk of development.
While cataracts are a very treatable disease (cataract surgery has a 95% success rate, with a 1 in 5000 risk of blindness) the focus should be on cataract prevention. For example, it is known that exposure to Ultraviolet (UV) radiation can lead to the development of lens clouding. The Canadian Association of Optometrists recommends wearing sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays. Sunglasses should be worn by everyone, regardless of age, while outdoors and all-year round. Half of our lifetime exposure to harmful UV rays occurs by the age of 18. Children should especially wear sunglasses, as they spend more time outdoors typically and have larger pupils which allows more UV radiation to enter the eye. Having routine eye exams is important for the early detection and treatment of cataracts. Vitamin C supplementation may also prevent their development or progression and the recommended intake for this purpose is 300-500mg/day of Vitamin C. In the early stages of cataracts, vision can be restored or optimized by having a spectacle prescription update and anti-glare lens treatment applied to the spectacle lenses, if used. With more advanced cataracts, when a patient’s best-corrected visual acuity is more significantly reduced or daily living skills are made difficult to perform due to the presence of cataracts, surgery then becomes the best option to restore sight. The average wait time for surgery in Ontario varies by specialist, but is typically between 4 to 6 months.
If you’re in Mississauga, ON, book your annual eye exam with Dr. Sciberras to have a comprehensive eye health and vision evaluation, and to make sure your vision is optimal and to learn of the overall health of your eyes.