Eyeing cataracts

  • Health
  • Sunday, 11 Jul 2004

Cataracts are actually clumps of protein that accumulate in your eye lens that cloud up and reduce the light passing through to reach the retina.

MY mother has noticed her vision blurring recently. She is 60 years old. When we look into her eyes, we see a whitish spot in her pupils. We are afraid it might be a cataract. Cataracts are common in old people, yes? 

Yes. A cataract is actually a clouding of the lens in the eye, which is normally clear. Imagine a dirty window, if you will, that is covered with dust.  

Cataracts are very common in old people. In fact, it’s estimated that half the population over 80 years of age have a cataract or have had some form of cataract surgery.  

Can it spread from one eye to the other? Is it hereditary? What causes cataracts? 

No, it won’t spread. It’s not an infectious disease. But if you have parents who have had cataracts, there is a greater chance of you developing it in later life.  

It’s a risk that develops as you age. However, if you have diabetes, smoke or consume lots of alcohol, the risk of developing cataracts is far greater.  

If you’re an outdoor type who is exposed to long periods of ultra-violet sunlight without protective eyeshades, your risk is far greater as well. Injury to the eye or a previous eye surgery can also predispose to cataracts.  

Cataracts have also been linked to steroid usage.         

I am short-sighted. Does it mean I’m prone to cataracts? I read a lot as well, and watch a lot of television. 

No, short-sightedness, reading or watching too much TV does not predispose to cataracts. To protect your eyes while you are still young or middle-aged, you should wear good eyeshades or sunglasses that filter out ultra-violet light from the sun. Don’t invest in those cheap eyeshades you can buy for under RM50. Wear a wide-brimmed hat too if you can. 

Eat plenty of green leafy vegetables and fruits. The antioxidants in them have been postulated to minimise the risk of cataracts.  

What exactly are cataracts? 

Cataracts are actually clumps of protein that accumulate in your eye lens that cloud up and reduce the light passing through to reach the retina. For example, if you wear contact lenses, you have to periodically soak them in an enzyme solution to cleanse them from accumulated protein. The same principle works in your eye. 

The older you get, the greater the accumulation of protein in your lens. Cataracts grow slowly, so you may not notice any blurring in your vision at first. When the cloudy protein area grows in your lens, your vision starts getting blurrier. And as the lens colours with age, your vision may start to get a brownish tinge. You may not be able to differentiate blue from purple.  

Unfortunately, there is no way to cleanse the real lens of your eye.         

How would I know if I have a cataract? 

Aside from cloudy or blurry vision, some of the colours you see on objects seem to have a brownish tinge to it, or they seem to be faded. Car headlamps or even sunlight may appear to be too bright, and when you look at street lamps at night, they may have a halo around them.  

You might have difficulty seeing at night. Sometimes, you might even be seeing double or multiple images, as light is refracted in different ways by the cataract. 

Sometimes, a warning sign is when you have to go to change your eyeglasses or contact lenses prescription very often, because you just can’t see.  

You mentioned cataract is a disease of old age, and yet when one of my friends gave birth to a baby daughter, the baby was diagnosed with cataracts. My friend was very upset. 

There is such a condition called congenital cataract. Some babies can be born with them, or may develop them in childhood.  

In most cases of congenital cataracts, no specific cause is identified. But congenital and childhood diseases such as galactosaemia, congenital rubella, Down’s syndrome and others have been linked to it.         

How do you detect a cataract? 

An eye chart that measures visual acuity is the way to screen for a cataract.  

If you suspect you have one (or that your relatives have one), you should visit an ophthalmologist, who is an eye specialist. He/she will dilate your pupils with eye drops, so that he/she can peer into your lens and examine it for cataract.  

A simple test doctors use is to shine into your pupils using a penlight. A cataract shows up whitish or cloudy.  

My mother has cataracts. She heard that they can be removed by surgery, but she’s terrified of eye surgery.  

Cataract treatment does not always involve surgery. The symptoms of early cataracts can be obviated with better eyeglasses and anti-glare sunglasses.  

Cataract surgery is only recommended if your daily life is affected by the cataract.  

But fear not. Modern cataract surgery is very precise, safe and efficient.  

In phacoemulsification, the doctor makes a small incision on the side of your cornea and inserts a tiny probe which breaks up the lens into small pieces. The lens fragments are then removed by suction.  

The lens can also be removed in one piece, but that will require the doctor to make a bigger cut. An artificial lens is placed instead. It is made of plastic and usually requires no care. You will not be able to see or feel the new lens. It has effectively become a part of you. The surgery is relatively painless, so don’t worry.         

  • Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for The Star and other publications for eight years on various subjects such as medicine, health advice, computers and entertainment. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information. 

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