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Cataracts aren’t just an “old people thing.” You can start to slow them down right now.
You probably think of cataracts as something you might have to deal with as you get older. And you’re not entirely wrong: “Cataracts become more common in people’s 50s and 60s in the U.S.,” says Crystal Tong, O.D., an optometrist in Eastvale, California.
But there are other causes that have nothing to do with how many candles are on your birthday cake. In fact, even babies can be born with cataracts (although that is usually due to an inherited disorder).
So what are cataracts, exactly? Simply put, they’re cloudy areas that develop in the lens of the eye, which is normally clear.
Cataracts typically develop slowly. Early on, you may not even know you have them, unless your eye doctor tells you. But over time, cataracts can lead to blurry or hazy vision or make colors look faded. They can cause you to become extra sensitive to light or cause you to see double or have trouble seeing well at night.
But you don’t necessarily have to be in your 50s or 60s for those effects to start to show up. For one thing, having a family history of cataracts increases your chance of developing them.
Your risk of cataracts — no matter how old you are — also increases if you have diabetes, suffer an eye injury or take certain medications such as steroids for long periods of time. Even overexposure to the sun can increase your risk.
Good news, though: Cataracts aren’t a given. And there are steps you can take to prevent cataracts or keep them from worsening if you already have them:
1. Get Regular Comprehensive Eye Exams
Your America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses optometrist isn’t just checking to see if you need new eyeglasses. They’re there to protect your vision. “See your eye doctor every year to monitor your eyes for cataract progression,” Dr. Tong advises.
Most often, your optometrist will simply keep track of whether cataracts are worsening and make sure you have the optimal prescription for your glasses or contact lenses. But if your cataracts begin to impact your daily life — say you can no longer see well enough to drive at night — it may be time to consider surgery, Dr. Tong says.
2. Slip on Those Sunglasses
“As time goes on and we have more exposure to ultraviolet light, the lens inside the eye absorbs UV light to protect the other internal structures. This changes the matrix and material of the lens, so it becomes cloudy,” Dr. Tong says.
It’s best to choose sunglasses that are polarized or are labeled with “100% UV protection” or “UV 400.” (You’ll find this information on the frame itself or on the tag or box.) The latter designations (which mean the same thing) are your cue that the lenses will block virtually all rays of light up to a wavelength of 400 nanometers. Translation: They offer the highest protection available from both types of UV rays (UVA and UVB).
Plus, polarized lenses work hard to cut the amount of glare you experience, adds Dr. Tong. If you don’t see any kind of UV designation, you can’t be sure of the level of protection, cautions Dr. Tong. Those sunnies may be nothing more than a stylish accessory.
Dr. Tong also suggests wearing a hat with a brim to protect your eyes from UV light when you’re outside.
3. Eat an Eye-Healthy Diet
No big surprise: What’s healthy in general is good for your eyes. Focus on eating plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, especially dark, leafy greens (kale, spinach) and foods rich in vitamin C (like citrus fruits).
Also, keep your alcohol intake in the moderate zone, as heavy alcohol consumption can increase the risk of cataracts. For healthy adults, moderate alcohol use is defined as up to one alcoholic drink a day for women and two for men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
4. Avoid Eye Injuries
When you’re playing sports (especially ones like baseball or racquetball, where there’s a chance of getting whacked in the face with a fast-moving ball), wear protective eyewear, Dr. Tong says. You need safety glasses when working with power tools too.
Any time your eye is injured, your risk of developing cataracts later in life goes up, she says.
5. Manage Your Medical Conditions
There’s a connection between some common medications, such as steroids, and health conditions like diabetes and cataracts, says Dr. Tong. If you have a chronic health problem, it’s important to carefully follow the treatment plan outlined by your health care team, she adds.
If you have diabetes, take steps to keep your blood sugar under control. Take any medicines as prescribed. Also, pay close attention to your diet, exercise regularly, and stay at a healthy weight, as these are all well-documented lifestyle habits that can help prevent dangerous blood sugar spikes and dips, says Dr. Tong. These same measures also help control high blood pressure.
6. Quit Smoking
Do you need another reason to kick the tobacco habit? Here’s one: Smoking depletes vitamins in the body that could help protect your eyes, which increases your risk of developing cataracts, according to Dr. Tong. In fact, people who smoke 15 or more cigarettes a day are 42% more likely to develop cataracts than nonsmokers are.Let your America’s Best optometrist know if this is a concern for you. They can recommend a quit-smoking plan.