The eye's natural lens helps us focus our eyesight at varying distances by bending (or refracting) the light rays coming into our eyes. As we grow older this lens often stiffens and hardens, losing its ability to focus and creating vision problems. Cataracts often develop as we age because of these natural changes in the eye. This condition—an age-related cataract—is the most common type of cataract.

Around 40 years of age, the proteins in the eye’s lens break down and clump together—making a cloudy area on the lens, called a cataract. Over time, cataracts become more severe and cloud more of the eye’s lens, causing things to appear blurry, hazy or less colorful. As this occurs, it can be akin to looking through a foggy or dusty window.

While cataracts can occur as a result of other eye diseases, they mostly develop naturally with age. Cataracts affect more than 24.4 million Americans 40 years of age and older, and by age 75, more than half of Americans have cataracts. Since the lens is no longer as flexible or as clear as it used to be, the eye can't focus light properly.

While anyone can (and many of us will) develop cataracts, some are at higher risk than others. This includes people who:

  • Smoke
  • Drink too much alcohol
  • Have diabetes
  • Have a family history of cataracts
  • Have undergone certain eye surgeries (such as glaucoma surgery)
  • Take steroids for an extended period of time (steroids are a medication used to treat a variety of health conditions, including arthritis and allergies)
  • Have spent a lot of time in the sun

Other types of cataracts include traumatic cataracts, radiation cataracts, pediatric (or congenital) cataracts and a related condition known as secondary cataracts (or posterior capsule opacification).

Symptoms of Cataracts

At first, symptoms may be undetectable or very slight. However, any noticeable change in vision may be cause for concern and should be brought to the attention of an eye doctor. Common symptoms of cataracts include:

  • Cloudy or blurred vision
  • Sensitivity to light and glare
  • Frequent prescription changes for glasses or contact lenses
  • Poor night vision
  • Faded color vision changes and dimming
  • Double vision in a single eye (which sometimes goes away as the cataract gets bigger)

Cataracts can eventually lead to vision loss. These symptoms can also be a sign of other eye problems, so speak to your doctor if you notice any of them.

Steps to Help Prevent Cataracts:

Treatment for Cataracts

Surgery is the only way to remove cataracts, but it may not be immediately necessary. Cataract removal is one of the most common procedures in the U.S.

Early on, management options include:

  • Using brighter lights
  • Wearing anti-glare sunglasses
  • Using magnifying lenses for reading and other near viewing activities
  • Getting a new prescription for eyeglasses or contact lenses

Once cataracts become an obstacle for your everyday activities (such as driving, reading and watching television, for example), surgery may be the next step. In cataract surgery, the doctor will remove the clouded lens and replace it with a new, artificial lens (also called an intraocular lens, or IOL). Cataract surgery usually lasts less than one hour and is mostly painless. Fortunately, cataract surgery is very safe and has proven extremely successful, with nine out of 10 people experiencing better vision afterwards.