A cataract is a cloudy or opaque area in the lens of the eye. As this cloudy area thickens, it prevents light from passing through the lens and focusing on the retina. Early changes may not affect vision but increasingly blurred vision, sensitivity to light and glare, increased shortsightedness or distorted images may develop. In the late stages, the lens becomes visibly opaque or white. Cataracts can occur in different places in the lens: nuclear cataracts occur in the center of the lens and are most commonly associated with aging. Other types include cortical cataracts and subcapsular cataracts, which are more commonly associated with diabetes. Although cataracts usually aren't painful, they may sometimes cause swelling in the lens and increased pressure in the eye.

CataractsBetween the ages of 52 and 64, there is a 50 per cent chance of having a cataract. By age 75 most people have had a cataract and 50 per cent of people aged between 75 and 85 have lost some vision as a result. Cataracts surgery is the number one therapeutic surgical procedure performed on Americans aged 65 and older.

Causes of cataracts

Cataracts occur when certain proteins within the lens become damaged. Damage to the enzymes necessary to eliminate the abnormal proteins may also occur. This damage is probably caused by free radicals generated by repeated exposure to ultraviolet light and oxygen. Cataracts may form when the oxidative stress on the lens exceeds the capacity of the antioxidant systems to protect against it, which occurs increasingly with age.

Other causes include exposure to X-rays or strong sunlight, inflammatory eye diseases, certain drugs (such as corticosteroids), or complications of other diseases such as diabetes. They're more common in older people but babies can be born with cataracts. Heredity may play a part in the susceptibility to cataracts.

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