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Jake likes to visit his Grandma Fran on his way home from school. She always has special treats for him like his favorite homemade chocolate chip cookies, and she takes time to help him with his homework.

Lately, though, Jake's noticed that Grandma Fran has trouble reading some of his assignments. When Jake asked her if anything was wrong, Grandma Fran explained that she has cataracts — her glasses used to help, but now she needs to have an operation that will help her eyes see better again.

An operation sounds scary, right? But many older people like Jake's grandma develop cataracts as they age. Cataract surgery is common and is almost always successful. Let's find out more about it.

What Are Cataracts?

In your eye you have a lens, which is normally clear like a window that has just been cleaned. If that lens gets cloudy, it's called a cataract (say: KAH-tuh-rakt). Like a dirty window, a cloudy lens makes it difficult to see well. The person can still see, but it's blurry.

The lens in your eye is made of protein and water. But as people get older, sometimes proteins in the lens stick together and cause cloudiness, or cataracts. At first, a person who has a cataract may not notice any difference in the way he or she sees. But over time, the person may find it harder to read and do other normal tasks. In fact, "cataract" means waterfall in Latin. Why? Because, if you have one, it can be like seeing through a waterfall.

Cataracts almost always happen to people who are older than 50. This is the type of cataract Jake's grandmother has. No need to worry — cataracts aren't contagious, which means you can't get one from someone who has them. In fact, most people will develop cataracts at some point in their lives as they get older. It's a normal aging process of the eye.

Rarely, kids are born with cataracts or develop them while they are babies or during childhood. When kids are born with cataracts, it may be because they inherited the cataracts (through their genes) or got them when they were still developing inside their mom before being born.

Whether the person is young or old, cataract surgery usually solves the problem.

What Does the Doctor Do?

Someone who has vision trouble should see an eye doctor. The doctor can test the person's vision and examine the eyes. When a cataract first forms, a person may be able to see better by using stronger lighting and wearing glasses. Eventually, though, surgery may become necessary.

During cataract surgery, the cloudy lens is removed and usually replaced with a new plastic lens that a person can easily see through. After the surgery, a person may be able to see better or it may take a while for vision to improve. After surgery, the person will have to do a few special things, like use eyedrops.

Cataract surgery is one of the most common operations performed in the United States. More than 1 million surgeries are done every year. That's a lot of eyes!

Why Do People Get Cataracts?

Like wrinkles on a person's skin, cataracts go along with getting older. Cataracts might happen to someone who's 50 or they might not happen until someone is 70. Certain factors make it more likely someone will develop cataracts. Some are difficult to avoid, such as having diabetes and taking certain medications.

But kids and adults can do something about other risk factors, such as smoking, poor nutrition, eye injuries, and unprotected exposure to the sun. In other words, don't smoke, eat healthy, protect your eyes from injury, and wear your sunglasses!

Reviewed by: Jonathan H. Salvin, MD
Date reviewed: October 2013

 
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EyeCare America is a public service foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology that works to raise awareness about eye disease and care, provide free eye health educational materials, and facilitate access to medical eye care.
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