What Causes Cataracts?

A cataract is a clouding of the lens inside the eye. As we age, proteins in the lens start to break down, and the lens may become cloudy. Although the majority of cataracts are a result of the aging process, there are other causes.

The lens of the eye is made up mostly of water and protein. This protein works to keep the lens clear and transparent, allowing light to pass through the eye to the retina, where the images that we see are formed.

As we age, the protein may begin to clump together and cloud over a small area of the lens. This is called an age-related cataract. It may be mild, moderate, or severe. As time goes on, the cataract may cloud more of the lens. It may also become denser or more opaque, making it difficult for us to see clearly.

The phrase “age-related” can be a bit misleading, however. You don’t have to be elderly to get an age-related cataract. In fact, according to Prevent Blindness America, more than 24 million Americans age 40 and older, or about one in every six people in this age range, have at least one cataract. But it’s more likely that a cataract will significantly affect vision after age 60.

Other Causes of Cataracts

While age is the main culprit, the exact cause of cataracts is unknown. There are several other factors that may contribute to the development of cataracts, including:

  1. Eye injury or trauma – The eye is a delicate structure and is particularly vulnerable to damage from trauma.  Both blunt and penetrating injuries may cause cataracts weeks, months or even years after the initial injury. What you may consider a minor injury, such as being poked in the eye with a finger during a basketball game, may result in a cataract. To reduce risk, wear eye protection during contact sports and jobs that involve grinding or drilling.
  2. Environmental factors –Medical studies have shown that the eye is more sensitive to ionizing radiation (from X-rays), infrared radiation (from welding and glass blowing), ultraviolet radiation (from sunlight), microwave radiation (from powerful satellite, radar and radio equipment), and cosmic radiation (from space) than was once thought, and long-term or unprotected exposure may cause cataracts to form. Reduce risk by wearing sunglasses if outdoors and protective eyewear in occupations with high exposure to radiation.
  3. Disease – Not everyone who has diabetes develops an eye complication, but diabetics are at a higher risk for developing cataracts. The cataracts may appear at a younger age and may progress faster. Hypertension may also cause cataracts to form earlier in life than they would have otherwise. Good disease control, annual eye exams and early detection may significantly reduce the risk.
  4. Genetics – Some cataracts are related to inherited genetic disorders that may increase your risk of cataracts. Although uncommon, some children are born with cataracts or develop them during childhood. The cataracts are usually removed soon after they are detected.
  5. Medications – Some medications have been found to be associated with the development of a cataract, such as the oral, topical, or inhaled steroids. Other medications that may be related to cataract development include long-term use of statins to reduce cholesterol.
  6. Other Causes –Lifelong smokers have been shown to develop cataracts at a faster rate than non-smokers. Prolonged excessive alcohol intake may also increase the risk. Eye surgery for other conditions can also cause cataracts.

No matter the cause, it’s not necessary to live with cataracts and poor vision. The state-of-the art surgical techniques used by the cataract specialists at Eye Consultants of Pennsylvania are painless and precise and may even make it possible for you to see well up-close and at a distance after lens replacement without the need for glasses.

If you have other questions about what causes cataracts, suspect you may have a cataract, or would like more information about cataract surgery, get in touch with Eye Consultants of Pennsylvania to schedule an evaluation. We serve patients throughout Reading, Pottsville, Pottstown, Lebanon and Wyomissing, PA.

Our cataract specialists include Adam J. Altman, MD, Y. Katherine Hu, MD, Lawrence E. Kenney, MD, Christina Lippe, MD, Michael A. Malstrom, MD, Mehul H. Nagarsheth, MD, Abhishek Nemani, MD, Jonathan D. Primack, MD, and Kevin J. Shah, MD. For an appointment, call toll-free 1-800-762-7132.

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