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What is a Cataract?

The lens of the eye is one of the main refractive (focusing) surfaces of the eye. A normal lens is transparent and helps to focus light rays onto the retina (the back layer of the eye that acts like film in a camera). When the lens losses clarity, it is known as a cataract. The lens of the eye is composed of protein. If that protein ages, or becomes denatured, it will swell with water and become cloudy. The cloudiness of the lens is called a cataract. A cataract is not normally visible to the naked eye. However, your local eye doctor or primary care physician can diagnose the presence of a cataract by carefully inspecting the inside of your eye.

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Symptoms of Cataracts

The chief symptom of cataracts is a gradual decrease in vision that is not usually associated with pain or redness. Complaints from patients with cataracts usually consist of a progressive decrease in their ability to do their normal daily activities. Patients with cataracts often notice night vision difficulties, which include glare and halos around lights. Alternatively, bright sunlight may be bothersome and irritating. Patients may notice a change in their eyeglass prescription. They may find that they can now read better without the need for reading glasses. This "improvement" is temporary, however, and is usually associated with poor distance vision.If you are experiencing any of these types of symptoms, I would strongly encourage you to consult your local optometric physician or primary care physician for an evaluation.

Causes of Cataracts

There are many factors that can cause the lens of the eye to lose its clarity and to become a cataract. The most common type of cataract is related to aging. Exactly why the transparency decreases with age is not fully understood. Nutritional and environmental factors appear to play a role. Both ocular and systemic diseases can cause cataracts. Chronic ocular inflammation, ocular injuries, and certain types of eyedrops can produce cataracts. Diabetics are particularly predisposed to cataract formation. Specific medications such as cortisone also produce cataracts. In some patients, there may also be familial tendency towards cataracts.

Prevention and treatment of early cataracts through nutritional or dietary means may be possible. It appears that free radical damage may produce degenerative changes in the lens, thereby causing opacification (cloudiness). Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that can interact with, and destroy, living cells. Free radicals may be derived from our environment (sunlight, radiation, and chemicals), ingested in our food, or produced within our bodies. While the majority of free radicals in the body are self-generated, exposure to environmental or dietary free radicals greatly increases the free radical load in the body. For example, cigarette smoking is a prime cause for an increased free radical load. Many of the harmful effects of smoking are related to the inhalations of high levels of free radicals.

Compounds that can prevent free radical damage are called antioxidants. The lens is dependent on the proper functioning of certain antioxidant enzymes in order to prevent free radical damage. People with higher dietary intakes of vitamins C and E, selenium and carotene’s, have a significantly lower risk of developing cataracts (A. Taylor, Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 1993). Since free radical damage appears to be a key factor in the production of cataracts, the avoidance of a heavy free radical load is important to successfully prevent the progression of cataracts. A patient with cataracts should, in general, avoid direct sunlight unless wearing ultraviolet protective glasses, and greatly increase their intake of antioxidant nutrients. They should try to avoid fried foods. The consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and yellow-orange vegetables (high in carotenes) should be encouraged. Some patients may wish to consider nutritional supplements (including vitamin C, E, and selenium, beta-carotene and certain amino acids). Please consult with your personal physician before taking any nutritional aids.