As people age, there’s a high chance for cataracts to develop within the eyes of those in their 60s, 70s and 80s, evidenced by the more than 4 million people who undergo the most common surgery performed in the U. S. – cataract surgery.
“We’re in the middle of this baby boomer population so the number of people over 65 is dramatically growing,” said Dr. Lothaire Bluth, an ophthalmologist, founder of Southwestern Eye Center and chairman of the board at American Vision Partners (AVP). “In their 60s, 70s and 80s is when people start noticing and complaining about it, so we’re seeing this huge demand for cataract surgery.”
When talking about cataracts, Bluth recommends people think of the eye as a camera. Light passes through the cornea and then the pupil to reach the lens, similar to that of a camera. However, the lens within the eye is much smaller than that of a camera lens, being about the size of an M&M candy and clear like glass. The lens then focuses light onto the retina, and the retina makes the picture that is then sent to the brain. The brain interprets that picture as our vision. When young, the lens flexes, allowing for both near-sighted and far-sighted vision.
“When we’re born we have a clear lens so vision is good,” Bluth said. “The lens comes in layers, like an onion, and every year, like a tree gets a new ring, the lens of our eye gets a new layer. When we get to be about 40 it can no longer flex like it did when we were kids.”
As the aging process progresses the lens develops more and more layers, becoming thicker. As layers develop over the years and the lens loses its flexibility, light has a harder time getting through.
“In most of us cataracts are simply caused by the aging process,” Bluth said. “Cataracts are like gray hair and wrinkles; if you live long enough, you’re going to get them. It’s just part of life.”
The most common cause of cataracts is aging, though some people are born with them while others develop cataracts because of eye trauma or use of certain medications such as steroids.
“Another cause is diabetes, which accelerates the progress of cataracts,” Bluth said. “There’s just a multitude of things that make it come at an earlier age.”
With cataracts being so common nowadays, Bluth noted cataract surgeries have gone through a remarkable transition and that the stories people used to hear about the difficulties paired with treating cataracts no longer pertain to the surgery.
“I’ve been practicing for 35 years in cataract surgery,” he said. “When I started doing cataract surgery we made an incision that was 12 milimeters long on your eye, used silk sutures, and there was a lot of tenderness that happened postoperatively. It took several weeks for their vision to be good.”
When Bluth started in the profession, the surgery took 30-40 minutes and sometimes even up to an hour. It also required a short hospital stay. Today the incision made is as small as 2.5 milimeters and the surgery takes 10-15 minutes, requiring no stay in a hospital.
“It’s just been unbelievable what’s happened,” he said.
One of the biggest indicators of cataracts, according to Bluth, is being unable to pass a driver’s test due to vision. Struggling to see at a distance and at night are other common factors that lead people to go to an eye doctor. Having cataract surgery improves quality of life, Bluth said, as it allows people to retain their independence and continue to be active.
As effective as cataract surgery is, cataract surgery is not a guarantee that vision will be back to 100 percent.
“If the rest of your eye isn’t working well, you’re not going to get the perfect vision,” Bluth said. “There’s a lot of other problems people can have with their eyes.”
Bluth recommends that once someone has reached the age of 60 they go once a year to an eye doctor, of which Kingman has in abundance.