A cataract is a clouding of the lens of the eye but one thing is clear – they affect a lot of people. 24 million Americans have visually significant cataracts, and about three million cataract surgeries are performed each year in the United States alone. While they can’t necessarily be prevented, there are things you can do to lower your risk.

What causes a cataract? The lenses in our eyes are mostly made up of water and protein. The protein is arranged in a precise way that keeps the lens clear. However, things can change over time.

“As we age, some of the protein might clump together and start to cloud a small area of the lens,” says Dr. Stephen Boorstein, an Ophthalmologist with SSM Health Davis Duehr Dean Eye Care. “This is a cataract. Over time, it may grow larger and cloud more of the lens, affecting a person’s vision.”

As to why the protein may clump together, there are a variety of reasons. Certain diseases like diabetes may cause it, or behaviors like smoking or alcohol use can have an effect.

What are the symptoms? If you have a cataract, you may experience more than just cloudy or blurred vision.

“Colors seem faded for some people or you might have double vision or see multiple images in one eye,” says Dr. Boorstein. “Other people have problems at night with glares or halos around vehicle headlights.”

One other red flag is if you have frequent prescription changes for your eyeglasses or contact lenses.

How can someone lower their risk? Protecting your eyes from the sun is one way that may help delay a cataract. Wearing sunglasses and a brimmed hat will block ultraviolet rays that can damage eyes. If you smoke, try to stop as soon as possible. And researchers believe good nutrition can reduce the risk of age-related cataracts.

“Leafy greens are packed with antioxidants that may lower someone’s risk,” adds Dr. Boorstein. “And citrus fruits and berries have a lot of vitamin C, which may help ward off cataracts.”

If treatment is needed… The symptoms of early cataract may be improved with new eyeglasses, brighter lighting or anti-glare sunglasses. If these do not help, surgery is the next option. Surgery involves removing the cloudy lens and replacing it with an artificial lens.

“Surgery is performed as an outpatient procedure and is one of the most common operations performed in the United States,” says Dr. Boorstein. “A large majority of patients have better vision afterward and are able to see improvement in their quality of life.”

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