Huntington Theatre Company's production of Hedda Gabler, at the BU Theatre, through Jan. 28

Vol. IV No. 18   ·   12 January 2001 


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Surgery can cure vision problems caused by cataracts

My aunt was recently diagnosed with cataracts. What exactly are cataracts and what can be done about them?

A cataract is a cloudiness that develops on the lens of the eye, blocking or changing the passage of light needed for vision. The lens is actually located behind the pupil and the colored iris and is normally transparent. Its role is to help focus images onto the retina at the back of the eye, which transmits the images to the brain. As a lens becomes cloudy, less light passes through to reach the retina, and a person's vision will become blurred or dimmed.

While some cataracts are caused by injury and certain diseases, most are believed to be the result of normal aging and long-term exposure to ultraviolet light. Practically everyone will have at least some change in their lenses as they age, and about half of those between the ages of 75 and 85 have lost some vision as a result. In the past, people just accepted that weakening vision was an inevitable fact of aging. Now, with advancements in surgical procedures and lens replacement, that is no longer the case.

Developing cataracts are usually marked by painless sight deterioration, blurred or double vision, and an increased sensitivity to glare.
A person experiencing any of these symptoms should see an ophthalmologist (a medical doctor who specializes in eye surgery), who will check the eye for any changes in the lens.

Once cataracts start to develop, they get worse over time, as the clouded areas become larger and denser.

"With some people, cataracts progress quickly, in a matter of months," explains Kenneth Chern, M.D., assistant professor of ophthalmology at Boston University School of Medicine and an ophthalmologist at University Eye Associates. "With others, it could take years before their vision is seriously affected. In most cases, your vision eventually clouds until you're legally blind, but the condition is reversible. Once the cataracts are removed, most people can see again."

To remove cataracts, doctors actually remove the lens of your eye. The process is called extracapsular lens extraction and is performed by an ophthalmologist. While the thought of someone operating on your eye may be intimidating, it is actually the most common operation in the United States. Over one million cataract procedures are performed each year.

"The surgery itself takes less than an hour, and most patients go home the same day," Chern says. "When we remove your eye's lens, we insert a plastic lens to replace it. The lenses are very safe, and can usually be left in indefinitely. Most people see very well after the operation, but because the lens doesn't focus like your eye's real lens, you will need glasses for reading or using the computer."

According to Chern, surgery should be considered when poor vision interferes with a person's ability to enjoy a normal, independent life. Persons considering surgery should discuss the situation with their primary care physician and with the ophthalmologist who will be performing the surgery.

Declining eyesight may be a normal consequence of aging, but it is not one that has to be accepted.

"Health Matters" is written in cooperation with staff members of Boston Medical Center. For more information on cataracts or other health matters, call 617-638-6767.


17 January 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations