Causes & Risk Factors of Cataracts

What is a cataract?

When you focus on an image, a few parts of your eye are at work.  The lens, which can be found just behind the iris and pupil, focuses light (what helps you “see” the image) and directs it to the retina.  Located on the back of the eye, the light-sensitive tissue of the retina interprets the light and sends the brain a message about how to process the image via the nervous system.  A cataract occurs when the lens becomes blurry and less effective at focusing the light received through the eye, which is a major symptom of cataract development. 

How does a cataract develop?

The main components of the lens are protein and water.  The internal arrangement of the proteins in a healthy lens keeps the lens clear, which produces sharp images.  However, a cataract forms when these proteins start clumping in less effective arrangements, which translates into blurred or cloudy vision.  This clumping effect may grow as time passes and make it difficult to see.  Although researchers are still attempting to determine the exact mechanisms that lead to the development of cataracts, aging, smoking, and diabetes are all considered to be potential factors.

What causes cataracts?

There are a few types of cataracts.  In most cases, cataracts develop as a result of the natural aging process.  In fact, according to the National Eye Institute, over 50 percent of people in the U.S. over age 80 have developed a cataract or have undergone surgery to correct it.  Other situations that can lead to cataracts include (a) childhood cataracts following birth (congenital cataracts); (b) exposure to radiation (radiation cataracts); (c) severe injuries to the eyes (traumatic cataracts); or (d) as a result of other health problems related to the eyes, disorders that affect other systems (like diabetes), or use of steroids (secondary cataracts).

Are certain people at an increased risk for cataracts?

  • Older individuals (risk increases with increasing age)
  • Individuals who are exposed to the sun for extended periods of time on a regular basis
  • People who engage in behaviors like consuming alcohol, using steroids, or smoking
  • People with diabetes and certain other conditions

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