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Light enters the eye through the cornea, then the pupil (black circle in the middle of the colored part of the eye) and is focused by the lens before it hits the retina. As we age, the lens becomes cloudier, and that clouding of the lens is called a cataract.
The word cataract is derived from the Latin word ‘cataracta,’ which means waterfall. It is thought that the white appearance of water cascading down a waterfall is what a dense cataract looks like through the pupil. Fortunately in the United States, most cataracts are removed with phacoemulsification before they get to this late white stage and cause severe vision loss. In other parts of the world, advanced cataracts are the leading cause of blindness and there are many organizations that are working to eradicate them.
When do they start to form?
A slight yellowing of the lens usually starts around age 40. After that, the cataract slowly gets worse until the point were vision becomes blurry (even with glasses on) and glare from the sun or headlights can become debilitating. Systemic diseases such as diabetes and the use of steroids can make cataracts worsen at a greater pace.
The good news
If you live in the United States, once your cataract becomes visually significant, a skilled surgeon can usually remove it in about 10 minutes and replace it with a clear plastic lens (called an intraocular lens, or IOL). Your refractive error can also be corrected by the IOL, so that glasses will not be needed for clear vision after surgery. Complication rates are low for cataract surgery and the benefits to one’s quality of life are great. It’s no wonder why cataract surgery is the most often performed surgery of any kind in the United States every year.