1. Cataracts Are Part of Your Eye
Contrary to popular belief, cataracts are not something external that grow on your eyes. They occur as part of the ageing process and manifest as clouding of the lens, which sits within the pupil (the eye’s opening). As the condition worsens, so too does the clouding, which thickens the longer it is left for. Clouding occurs when lens protein clumps together and obstructs vision, creating the cataract.
2. The Only Cure is Surgery
Unfortunately, cataracts are irreversible, and once the clouding starts, it’s not possible for the lens to regain their former clarity. Surgery corrects that by removing the clouded lens and replacing it with a new one. The question is – which one?
3. There’s More to Lenses Than Meets the Eye
To understand why there is a difference in lenses, it is important to first understand how our natural lenses function. “Our natural lenses are very good if fully functioning – they allow for focusing of light and can also focus to see at different distances,” says Dr. Ong Chin Tuan, Consultant Ophthalmologist, Oculoplastic and Lacrimal Surgen of Beacon Hospital. “There is no artificial lens that can do this – this is the only lens that can change its focus based on what you’re looking at.”
Given that there is no artificial lens that can exactly replicate what our natural lenses were made to do, what are the options? Widely speaking, lenses come in monofocal and multifocal varieties, with monofocal being able to focus only on one distance, while multifocals are able to focus at different distances. The catch? Multifocals are much more expensive, and visuals aren’t as sharp as compared to the monofocals. “Because the design of the monofocals is simpler, vision is clearer and sharper,” Dr. Ong says. And if you have astigmatism, that’s also something that can be built into the selected lens.
4. Cataract Surgery is Not Easy as ABC
In fact, it’s far from it. Although it is a highly perfected surgery, Dr. Ong explains that, “There is a significant learning curve when it comes to cataracts surgery and it is not a straightforward operation. It requires immense precision, and I would warn against trivialising it as a ‘simple operation.’ Complications can arise and it can go from a 10 minute operation to one that takes an hour. It’s important for patients to understand the risks involved, though these risks are rare.”
5. Preparation is Important
Dr. Ong urges patients to be as fit as they can be if they’re scheduled for surgery, as it can be anxiety-inducing. “The key message is, you just need to look after yourself for all the usual reasons; but you also want to be at your fittest if you do end up going for cataract surgery so your body can deal with the operation better,” he says. “Don’t use pain as a benchmark for serious health problems – get your check-ups and don’t suffer in silence! If you think there’s a problem, get it checked out.”
6. Yes, it Mostly Blights Senior Citizens…
If you thought that cataracts only affected the elderly, you’d mostly be correct. Dr. Ong says that, generally, it does affect those who are older, though it doesn’t mean it can’t affect younger generations as well. “Studies have found that there is a higher chance of developing cataracts after the age of 65,” he says. “For those younger than 65, the prevalence of cataracts is at about 0.3%, and then after 65 it goes up by about three or four times. Basically, the older you are, the more risk you have of developing cataracts.”
7. But Wait – it’s Not Just For Older Folks
Although it generally is an affliction of the elderly, Dr. Ong advises that there are certain risk groups. Being diabetic automatically means you will be more at risk for developing cataracts because of the sugar fluctuation and the disruptive impact this has on the lenses’ metabolism. And if you smoke, do yourself a favour and improve all aspects of your health by stubbing out the ciggies – permanently. “Steroid users will also be at higher risk of developing cataracts,” Dr. Ong adds, “and this can include arthritics, those with immune conditions, or those who use eye drops with steroids, all of which also alter the metabolism of the lens.”
8. What Can You Do?
You can’t prevent cataracts per sé, but what you can do is prevent premature development of cataracts. Dr. Ong suggests controlling your diet and eating lots of fruit and vegetables with antioxidants, not smoking (this includes passive smoking), protecting your eyes from UV rays, and avoiding injury to the eye. “Injury”, in this sense, is used broadly because even surgery could be considered injury.
9. Cataracts are More Common than You Think
Unfortunately, cataracts aren’t one of those conditions that affects a minority. “We know that cataracts will affect a huge proportion of people – and it affects 70% of those in their mid-80s,” Dr. Ong says. “It’s a factor of ageing and part of the ageing process.” As the most obese nation in South East Asia with a high incidence of diabetes (even higher than the States) and non-stop sunshine and an ageing population, we’re at even more risk.
10. Glasses are Not a Death Sentence
If you’re short-sighted or long-sighted, fret not, because that doesn’t automatically predispose you to cataracts. What it would affect, however, is the technicality of any potential cataract surgeries you may go for in future. And if your parents had cataracts, it also doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get them too. “There does seem to be a genetic link but there is no single gene responsible for cataracts,” Dr. Ong explains. “It’s an interplay between your genes and the environment. It’s not as simple as saying, ‘This gene causes this and will be passed down to your children and their children’ – and so on and so forth. It’s not directly hereditary.”