By Kathy Hubbard
Several months ago, I took a friend to an eye clinic and while waiting for her turn for tests a woman came and sat next to me. She was talking quietly on her phone and she was crying. I happened to be sitting next a box of tissues, so I passed it to her.
Of course, I had to eavesdrop on her conversation. Really, it was hard not to. She was telling the person on the other end that she had to have cataract surgery and that she was terribly scared and feeling very much alone.
When she ended her call I told her that cataract surgery was the best thing I’d ever done for myself. Not only did I have no regrets, but it was actually one of the most pleasant experiences I’d ever had. A man sitting on the other side of her agreed with me.
Others chimed in with the same information. The woman seemed a bit cheered up. She told me that she had lots of health issues and this seemed to be just one more thing to fear. We all commiserated with her problems, but assured her this surgery was the least of her worries.
More than 24.4 million Americans age 40 and older have cataracts and 50 percent of us will have them by age 75. Many of us will have the surgery, many will put it off. I’ve already said where I stand on that subject.
Let’s look at what a cataract is. The National Eye Institute (NEI) explains: “A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects vision. Most cataracts are related to aging. A cataract can occur in either or both eyes. It cannot spread from one eye to the other.”
The lens lies behind the iris and the pupil. It’s the clear part of the eye that helps to focus light, or an image, on the retina. The retina is the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye.
“In a normal eye, light passes through the transparent lens to the retina. Once it reaches the retina, light is changed into nerve signals that are sent to the brain,” NEI says.
“The lens must be clear for the retina to receive a sharp image. If the lens is cloudy from a cataract, the image you see will be blurred.”
The lens is mostly made of water and protein. In a healthy eye the protein is precisely arranged to allow light to pass through. As we age that protein clumps together and starts to cloud the lens. Then it clumps more and more until our vision is very blurry.
This can happen very slowly. At first you won’t notice a change in your vision. But as the cataract grows, the cloudy protein takes on a brownish tint.
Besides getting older, other risks for cataracts are certain diseases like diabetes; smoking and alcohol use and/or prolonged exposure to ultraviolet sunlight. The common symptoms are blurry vision, poor night vision, a glare around a light such as a headlight or lamp, double vision or multiple images in one eye, and needing your eyeglass prescription changed frequently.
One day, I went to a funeral wearing black slacks, black shoes and blue socks. Oops. I pretty much stopped driving at night unless I knew where I was going because I couldn’t read a road sign. I sat about six inches from my computer screen. I squinted a lot. I mean a lot.
“Cataract removal is one of the most common operations performed in the United States,” NEI says. “It also is one of the safest and most effective types of surgery. In about 90 percent of cases, people who have cataract surgery have better vision afterward.”
I can’t tell you the difference it’s made for me. Colors are brighter. I can read for a much longer period of time. I can see people’s faces from across a room. My advice is to talk to your ophthalmologist today about whether or not it’s your turn. You won’t be sorry.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at 264-4029 or firstname.lastname@example.org.