How can you tell if you have cataracts?

The eyes are two globular organs made up of mostly water, salt, and proteins that provide organisms, like us, with vision.

And, at least on the surface, that’s all there is to it. But if you stop for a moment and take a deeper look into your own eyes (if you can), you’ll see they also contain two million moving parts in a space that’s just two centimetres wide, making them the second most complex organ after the brain, and thus one of the most complex systems in the known universe.

With this in mind, it’s a miracle we can even see at all. But it’s also important in helping us understand how this incredibly precise arrangement of components could be susceptible to certain conditions, the natural process of ageing, and, as a result of both, cataracts.

This is as good as a time as any to say we don’t know exactly why cataracts occur. There are a number of risk factors — namely diseases like diabetes, personal behaviours like smoking and stress, and environmental concerns such as prolonged exposure to UV light. But in general, cataracts have come to be regarded as just another part of getting older.

As such, like degrading knees and failing lungs, cataracts can be experienced sooner and more severely by some and not at all by others. But don’t feel like you’ve got it bad; in the US, as many as half or more of the total population have cataracts by the age of eighty. And in the UK, surgeons treat around 200,000 patients a year for the condition.

What exactly are cataracts?

In a nutshell, a cataract is the name given to proteins that have broken down and coalesced into clumps in the lens of the eye. These clumps develop over time, gradually reducing the ability of the lens to pass light through, which, in turn, reduces your ability to see.

Cataracts typically develop in your mid to late sixties and are characterised by a clouding of the lens and blurry vision. Other common signs include a fading or yellowing of colours, glare and halos from bright lights, poor night vision, double vision, and changes in prescription.

What to do if you have cataracts

If some of the symptoms above sound familiar, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have cataracts. As mentioned, the eye is incredibly complex, and many things such as blurry vision and sensitivity to glare could be signs of other eye problems.

First things first, then, get yourself to an eye care professional and have a checkup. Today, there’s a wide range of eye exams and tests that professionals use in order to check for and accurately diagnose cataracts.

One of these is a visual acuity test. You’ll likely recognise it for the familiar eye chart with letters and symbols that’s used to check how well you can discern shapes and details at a distance. Another is the dilated eye exam. Here, the eye care professional places drops into the eye to dilate the pupils so that the retina and other structures including the lens can be better examined. Among other things, you may be checked for the pressure inside the eye in what’s known as a tonometry exam.

Unfortunately, there’s no one ‘cure’ for cataracts. However, if — after a thorough and precise assessment — it’s determined that you do suffer from them, there’s a very clear and long established road to getting them treated and regaining your vision.

You may have heard of intraocular lenses (IOLs) —  the small, clear devices that are implanted in the eye that replace its natural lens. IOLs are an incredibly effective cataract treatment. However, they’re not all the same wherever you go, and their success depends greatly on the type of lens and the technology used to fit them.

This is why it’s so important to speak first with an eye care professional. If you catch cataracts early, for example, you might only need a new glasses prescription. But if it’s long past that stage, then they can direct you to the right hands and the right lens for restoring the miracle of clear vision.