Public Information Series
Aging and Vision Loss: Cataracts
Cataracts are one of the four leading causes of visual impairment
among older adults in the United States. A cataract alone may
cause visual impairment, or it may develop as a complication of
other eye diseases such as glaucoma or diabetic retinopathy.
A cataract is a clouding of the lens of the eye, which is
normally clear. Light can no longer pass through the lens easily,
and vision becomes hazy or blurred. The amount and pattern of
cloudiness varies, and it is possible to be unaware of a cataract’s presence if the center
of the lens is not clouded. How quickly a cataract develops varies among individuals.
Most cataracts associated with aging develop gradually over a period of years. Cataracts
that develop in younger people, or those with diabetes, may progress more rapidly.
Common symptoms of cataracts include:
• Blurred or double vision,
• Frequent changes of eyeglass prescriptions,
• Problems with light (sensitivity to light or glare, needing brighter light for reading
or close work, or poor night vision)
• Seeing yellow or faded colors.
However, a comprehensive examination by an eye care physician can detect the
presence and extent of a cataract, as well as determine whether any other visual
The most common type of cataract develops as the eye ages. Other causes include
heredity, medical problems such as diabetes, eye injuries and previous eye surgery,
medications such as steroids or, possibly, long-term unprotected exposure to sunlight.
Protecting the eyes from excessive sunlight may help prevent or slow the development
of cataracts. Sunglasses or sunshields that screen out ultraviolet (UV) light rays or
regular glasses with a clear anti-UV coating offer this protection. No medication,
exercise or optical device has been shown to prevent or cure cataracts.
Cataracts and Nutrition
Recent studies suggest that the development of cataracts may be more influenced by
nutritional factors than previously thought. A study published in the American Journal
of Clinical Nutrition found that woman might be able to reduce the risk for early onset of
cataracts by making sure they get plenty of Vitamin C. Women who took Vitamin
Community Services for the Blind and Partially Sighted
C supplements for 10 years or more reduced the development of cataracts by 60%
compared with the women who did not take Vitamin C. Overall, in women who had
never smoked, and in those who consumed foods with high amounts of antioxidants,
cataracts were considerably less likely to develop.
A study published in the journal “Ophthalmology” highlights the growing understanding
of the role of nutrition. The article cites earlier studies which showed that antioxidants
such as Vitamins A, C and E, seem to protect against the development of nuclear
cataracts. The study also found that by increasing consumption of polyunsaturated
fats, you might reduce the prevalence of cortical cataracts; while eating foods high in
protein and some of the B vitamins significantly reduce the risk for developing nuclear
In summary, it now appears that diets high in the antioxidants, particularly Vitamin
C, high in Vitamins B-1 and B-2, and high in the healthy fats, may help prevent the
development of cataracts. Non-smokers are also less likely to develop cataracts.
The only current treatment for cataracts is surgery, which is safe and
highly successful. When surgery is appropriate, and how successful
the outcome may be, varies from person to person. If macular
degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, or glaucoma is already present, the
development of a cataract complicates these conditions and makes the
decision whether to have surgery more complex. The eye care physician
must evaluate which condition is creating the most visual difficulty,
and then discuss with the patient the risks, benefits and possible outcomes of surgery.
Although cataract surgery will remove the cataract, it will not restore vision already lost
because of other eye conditions.
Cataract symptoms may be mild enough that a change in eyeglass prescription, special
magnifiers, or sunshields may relieve them. When a cataract begins to interfere with
everyday activities such as reading, cooking, driving safely or taking medications,
surgery should be discussed with your eye care physician. It is important to actively
share in the decision-making process because only you know how much your vision
problem is affecting the quality of your life and your ability to perform activities and
In most cataract surgeries, the natural lens is removed and replaced with an intraocular
lens implant. Less commonly, contact lenses or cataract eyeglasses are used instead
of an implant. If the natural capsule supporting the intraocular lens becomes cloudy, a
condition called “after cataract,” a laser is then used to open up the capsule and reduce
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, more than 1.4 million people in
the U.S. have cataract surgery every year, 95 percent without complications. Improved
vision is the result in more than 90 percent of cases, unless there are problems with the
cornea, retina, or optic nerve. When other eye conditions are present, low vision
devices may still be needed after surgery. The low vision rehabilitation process can
assess remaining vision and provide training in new visual skills using these special
For more information talk to your eye care physician, CSBPS staff, the Lighthouse
National Center for Vision and Aging (800) 334-5497, or Prevent Blindness America
Vitamin & Mineral Supplements and Your Eyes
Scientists have long debated whether taking vitamin and/or mineral
supplements could help prevent, treat or cure certain eye conditions.
Some early scientific studies seemed to show supplements had the
potential to prevent or slow the progression of cataract and age-
related macular degeneration (AMD), although a more complete study
was needed to answer some important questions:
• Which supplements are helpful for which condition(s)?
• Which patients will benefit from supplementation?
• What doses of supplements would benefit patients?
• What other effects might these supplements have on the body?
A recent study, the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), sought to address these
questions, and seems to have given us some (but not all) of the answers.
What is AREDS?
The Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) is a major study sponsored by the National
Eye Institute (NEI), one of the Federal government’s National Institutes of Health, and
was conducted at 11 major medical center research facilities around the country.
Should I Take Nutritional Supplements?
If you have intermediate or advanced AMD (in one eye only), talk to your physician
about taking nutritional supplements. He or she can help you determine if they may be
beneficial - and safe - for you, and what types and doses of supplements to take.
It is very important to talk with your physician before taking large dose supplements,
and to follow the dosage recommendations carefully. Some supplements may interfere
with each other or other medications.
Smokers and ex-smokers should probably not take beta-carotene, as studies have
shown a link between beta-carotene use and lung cancer among smokers.
Where Can I Get More Information?
For additional resources and information, contact your eye physician, CSBPS Low
Vision Services staff, The Association for Macular Diseases, Inc. www.macula.org
(210 East 64th Street, New York, NY 11021, (212-605-3719)), Foundation Fighting
Blindness, www. Blindness.org/Macular Degeneration, (11435 Cronhill Drive, Owings
Mills, MD 21117 -2220, (800-683-5555)).
More information on AREDS is available from the National Eye Institute of the
National Institutes of Health at www.nei.nih.gov/amd. Another excellent
source is the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s partner web site, Medem
www.medem.com under the Medical Library link.
Programs and Services
Low vision clinic and low vision rehabilitation
Instruction in independent living skills
Professional counseling and support groups
Safe travel and orientation training
Education, information and referral services
Assistive Technology resources
Adaptive aids specialty store, SightConnection
Since 1965, our mission has been to work with individuals, families and
communities to restore, maintain and enhance the independence and
well-being of people with impaired vision.
Community Services for the Blind and Partially Sighted
9709 Third Ave NE #100, Seattle, WA 98115-2027
(206) 525-5556 (v/tdd)
(800) 458-4888 (v/tdd)
(206) 525-0422 (fax)
Adaptive Aids Store: www.SightConnection.com
Agency hours: 8 AM – 5 PM, M-F
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©2006 Community Services for the Blind and Partially Sighted
Reprint or copy only with permission from CSBPS.