If we live long enough, most of us will develop cataracts. They develop in our eyes as a normal part of aging, and by age 80, over half of people will have developed cataracts. Cataract surgery is one of the most commonly performed operations. It is also one of the most successful surgeries, with about a 98% success rate.
For all of us who will need this surgery at some point, there is some good news research about how radically this surgery can change our life for the better. The latest study involved over 74,000 women in the United States who were part of the Women’s Health Initiative study. These women were studied for more than 20 years, from 1993 to 2015.
All these women were at least 65 years old and had cataracts. Some had surgical correction of the cataracts, and some did not. The study showed an amazing benefit to those who underwent the surgery—besides better vision. Those who underwent surgery had a 60% lower risk of dying during the 22-year study compared with the women who did not undergo the surgery.
What are cataracts?
Cataracts are a progressive clouding of the lens of our eye, leading to a slow fogging of vision. Normally the lens is transparent, and light passes through to our retina easily. With a cataract, this lens is cloudy, so it is like looking through a fogged-up window rather than a clean window.
Cataract symptoms and causes
People often first notice problems seeing at night or low-light conditions. They may be sensitive to bright lights, and see glares or halos around them. Colors are harder to distinguish. Cataracts are a product of aging, but certain things make them more likely. The most important is excessive sun exposure to the eyes, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, severe nearsightedness, and sometimes it runs in families.
Before the 1980s, cataract surgery was a big deal, requiring a hospitalization, general anesthesia, and prolonged immobilization of the head after surgery. Now, the surgery is done under local anesthesia, takes very few minutes, and the patient goes home soon after. With tremendous advances in lens implant technology, some implants now can allow good vision for both close and distance. Many patients no longer need glasses after surgery.
Why does cataract surgery prolong life?
People with cataracts often slowly withdraw from normal life activities as the condition progresses. They are more likely to fall, have more problems seeing their pills and taking medications properly, and often become more socially isolated. Once they have surgery and good vision returns, many are better psychologically. They are better able to think clearly. They socialize more, and are much less prone to accidents, such as a hip fracture, which can often start a long downhill spiral in some. If they drive, they have fewer accidents. Finally, they are more likely to get out and get exercise. All these factors work together to improve longevity.
While surgery usually has great results, it’s best to avoid cataracts. Wearing quality sunglasses faithfully is most important, and eating a good diet with fish (omega-3) and abundant colorful vegetables (antioxidants) helps. Regular eye exams with an ophthalmologist is important, and cataracts are easy to diagnose.
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