An article by Dr. Shilpa Rose, M.D. Originally Published in American Bazaar, June 5, 2017.

malagasy women with a visible cataract in her left eye looking at the camera and smiling

Malagasy woman with a visible cataract. ©Ellen Crystal Photography

A cataract is a natural clouding of the eye’s lens, which is normally clear, and causes blurred vision.

As an ophthalmologist, I am an ‘eyewitness’ to the chronic problem of blurred vision in my patients almost every day. But in many situations, if diagnosed earlier, the conditions could be less severe and easily cured. Case in point, sometimes the reason for blurred vision is cataracts. All of us will get cataracts at some point of our life. Like gray hair, it happens to everyone. Now I realize when I say that, “A cataract is the natural clouding of the lens”, your reaction may be, “What does that mean, Dr. Rose?” Well, this is when I dive into my favorite topic, ‘Eye Health 101’. As June is ‘Cataract Awareness Month’, let me just explain the function of the eye in relation to a cataract:

The eye is absolutely fascinating and has many parts that work together to produce clear vision. The lens is a clear part of the eye that helps to focus light and images on your retina. The retina is the light-sensitive tissue that lines the back of the eye – like wallpaper. These two act as a team by passing light through the lens to the retina. When the light – or image reaches the retina, light is changed into nerve signals which the brain interprets as visual images. Cool right?

Here’s the caveat: 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.

Cataracts mostly occur as you age. It is the most common cause of vision loss in people over 40 and is the principal cause of blindness in the world.

Tanzanian patient with a visible cataract ©Ellen Crystal Photography

So how does this happen?

The lens is made of mostly water and protein, and over time the protein may clump together and form a ‘cloud’ or a cataract. The causes of cataracts vary from age, to diseases such as diabetes, personal habits like smoking to excessive UV exposure. Cataracts affect more than 22 million Americans age 40 and older. They only need to come out if they are visually significant like causing a glare when driving at night, needing more light to read, a glare or double-vision, etc.

What can you do?

collage of many seva patients smiling with eye patches after cataract surgery

A few of the many patients who have received sight-restoring cataract surgeries funded by Seva donors

The good news is that people are having cataract surgery much earlier because of lifestyle, newer options for intraocular (implanted) lenses and new technology with surgery. Lenses now help with reading, nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism. And with surgery, we now have the option to be independent from glasses and contacts. If you choose surgery, it is quick – less than 15 minutes – usually as an outpatient, and is extremely common. We use topical anesthesia (drops), there is no pain, and recovery is quick.

Here’s the best news:

Once cataract surgery is done...it should last a lifetime, unlike many other surgeries.

Eyes are the window into a patient’s health. Fortunately with cataracts, there is a cure if detected early.  I love it when there is a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ – or in this case – the lens.

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