MONDAY, Dec. 27 (HealthDay News) -- When medical experts talk
about prevalence, they're usually referring to how common a
particular disease might be. But in the case of cataracts, they
might just as well be talking about how common it is to uncover
misinformation and misunderstanding about the condition.
Cataracts are a leading cause of blindness among seniors in the
United States, with more than half of all U.S. residents developing
the cloudy vision of cataracts by the time they reach 80 years old,
according to Prevent Blindness America, a nonprofit group that
focuses on eye health.
But eye experts say that people seem to believe things about
cataracts that aren't quite right, including when and how they
should be treated. Misinformation often seems to develop innocently
enough, with well-meaning folks spreading things they've learned by
"Sometimes friends give confusing and conflicting information because not every patient is the same or because they've heard something from someone else," said Dr. Cynthia Bradford, an ophthalmology professor at the University of Oklahoma's Dean A. McGee Eye Institute.
Nonetheless, the misinformation sometimes leads people to delay
treatment long past when it could help them or to expect too much
from treatment for this widespread vision problem.
Cataracts occur when the lens of an eye grows cloudy, according
to the U.S. National Eye Institute. Vision might grow progressively
cloudy until the person has difficulty seeing, or the person's
vision might take on a brownish tint that makes it harder to
And that leads to one of the first major myths -- that cataracts
are something that grow on top of the eye.
"A lot of people think of it as a growth, but it's almost like honey that's become granulated," Bradford said. The lens itself is the problem, which is why cataract surgery requires that the lens be removed and replaced.
More than 20 million Americans age 40 and older have cataracts,
and the condition is most often associated with aging. "The lens of
your eye changes as you get older, just like your skin begins to
look different," Bradford said.
But cataracts don't develop only in senior citizens. "The
majority of cataracts are due to aging, but there are cataracts
that are caused by other risk factors," said Dr. Stephen
Pflugfelder, a cataract expert on the faculty at Baylor College of
Medicine in Houston. They include:
- Trauma to the eye
- Long-term steroid use
- Long-term exposure to the ultraviolet rays contained in
- Severe long-term nearsightedness
Once someone has developed cataracts, misunderstanding seems to
abound regarding when they should be treated.
For starters, many seem to believe that someone with a cataract
should wait for the lens to go completely white before receiving
surgery. That's because they're remembering the old days, when
cataract surgery was much chancier, Bradford and Pflugfelder
"Some older people remember the surgery when it was really invasive," Pflugfelder said. "Patients had to lie down with sandbags on either side of their heads so they couldn't move. Not so anymore."
On the other hand, some people think they must seek out
treatment the minute they've been diagnosed with a cataract. But
that's not right, either, the experts say.
"The presence of a cataract is not an indication to take it out," Bradford said. Eye physicians often recommend that people wait to pursue treatment until a cataract has begun to interfere with their quality of life or their ability to work.
Cataract treatment is another area fraught with misinformation.
Some people think that there are eye drops that cure or treat
cataracts by dissolving them or slowing their progress, according
to Prevent Blindness America. But the organization says that's just
Surgery is the only proven treatment for cataracts, and its
safety record is much better than many people believe. More than 95
percent of cataract surgeries are successful and performed free of
complications, according to Prevent Blindness America.
"The surgical treatments are outstanding, and they keep getting better as it becomes less and less invasive," Pflugfelder said. Surgeons today can remove clouded lenses through microscopic incisions as small as 2.2 millimeters, using tiny implements to chop up the lens with ultrasound waves and suction it from the eye. Cataract surgery often is done in about half an hour, and people go home able to see out of the eye the same day.
Replacement lenses also are getting better, but Pflugfelder and
Bradford cautioned that they still are not perfect. Multifocal
lenses can allow people to see up close as well as at a distance,
but many people will still need glasses to help them read after
surgery, they said.
"The outcome of current cataract surgery is very good, but we can't promise everyone they won't need glasses," Bradford said.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology has more about
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