More than 3.3 million Americans aged 40 years and older are either legally blind or have low vision. The leading causes of blindness or low-vision in the United States are primarily age-related eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma.
Cataracts are formed from biochemical changes involving proteins within the eye lens, which cause hardening and leads to vision issues. Some proteins may clump together and cause cloudiness on the eye. The density and location of the clumps determine the way they block the passage of light through the eye’s lens. For a healthy eye, light passes through the transparent lens to the retina, which changes the light images to nerve signals that are sent to the brain to convert into images. In order to see a clear image, the eye’s lens must be clear, or the image will be inaccurate or blurred.
Cataracts take several years to develop and the density and location of a cataract determines the way the blockage can interfere with the translation of light through the eye’s len. The build up of proteins that form into cataracts can occur at any age because of a variety of causes, and can be present at birth. According to data from an eye study through the National Eye Institute 38.8% of men and 45.9% of women older than 74 have cataracts.
There are many causes, other than genetics, which can result in cataracts, including:
1. Medication - such as Prednisone, which can cause inflammation
2. Physical injury or trauma
3. Radiation - long term exposure to UVA & UVB from the sun, as well as cancer treatments
4. Poor Nutrition - diets deficient in vitamins A, C & E and selenium
5. Smoking (& secondhand smoke) - smokers have twice the risk for developing cataracts
6. Diabetes and diabetic retinopathy
7. Eye diseases such as uveitis - which is an inflammatory process
8. Race and ethnicity - African-Americans have nearly twice the risk of developing cataracts as Caucasians (likely because they have a higher incidence of developing diabetes). Hispanics also have a higher risk than Caucasians.
9. Gender - women have a higher risk than men
10. Obesity - associated with the risk of developing type II diabetes
11. Autoimmune diseases that require long term steroid use
12. Alcohol - chronic heavy drinkers are at greater risk
13. Environmental factors - long term exposure to lead may increase risk, as well as prolonged exposure to ionizing radiation such as x-rays.
Symptoms can include:
1. Reduced color perception
2. Reduced depth perception
3. Blurred, hazy or milky vision
4. Difficulty reading regular sized print
5. The need for brighter reading light, sensitivity to glare, bright sunlight or oncoming headlights for night driving
6. Poor night vision
7. “Halos” around lights
8. Development or worsening of nearsightedness
9. Double vision or “ghosting” vision. (Double vision can also be a sign of a serious neurological condition, which needs to be evaluated by a doctor)
Prevention is the best way to avoid cataracts. There are, however, natural ways to slow the progression of blurred vision leading to cataracts.
Studies show vegans and vegetarians have significantly lower risk of cataracts than meat eaters, particularly in the elderly population. This is more about the fact that this dietary group eats significantly more vegetables than meat eaters, which promote better eye health. Carrots, sweet potatoes and dark leafy greens improve eye health because they are high in antioxidants and Vitamin A (beta-carotene). Vitamin A has been shown to prevent loss of vision caused by degenerative conditions of the eye. A lack of vitamin A causes the cornea to become very dry, which can lead to clouding of the front of the lens, ulcers and vision loss.
Vitamin C has shown to reduce the risk of cataracts, and can be found in many fruits and vegetables such as peppers, citrus fruits, berries, broccoli and tomatoes. Vitamin E is another excellent dietary addition which reduces cataract formation, and can be found in almonds, spinach, wheat germ and sweet potatoes. Zinc deficiency has been linked to the formation of cloudy vision and poor night vision, and can be improved through the dietary sources of foods such as pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, yogurt and kefir. Lutein and zeaxanthin are two carotenoid antioxidants that have been most studied for their preventative qualities. They are found in many vegetables and found together in the lenses of eyes, for filtering out harmful rays, protecting and maintaining healthy eye cells. Omega-3 fatty acid has also been linked to reducing the risk of cataracts forming.
There are different types of cataracts.
Nuclear Sclerotic Cataracts is the most common type of age-related cataract, caused primarily by the hardening and yellowing of the lens over time. Nuclear refers to the gradual clouding of the central portion of the lens, called the nucleus. “Sclerotic” refers to the hardening, or sclerosis of the lens nucleus. It changes the eye’s ability to focus and close-up vision may temporarily improve. This symptom is referred to as “second sight,” however, this improvement is not permanent.
Since cataracts cause vision problems for 94 million people worldwide and can be linked to nearly half of the world’s cases of blindness, it is better to be aware of the ways to prevent this disease from starting. Millions of successful cataract operations are performed each year in the US and the numbers are increasing each year. Some people develop cataracts in their 40s and 50s, although these are generally very small. After 60 these small cataracts can begin to affect vision. By 80, more than half of all Americans have either had surgery or have a cataract, showing that the older we get the more likely cataracts become, and they do not just appear for no reason. Healthy lifestyle, including diet, lifestyle and healthy habits will help to reduce the many risks.
Advice from the Naturopath:
Cataracts are not just a factor of aging. They can be linked to diet and lifestyle. By reducing consumption of meats, especially red meat, and increasing vegetables, fruits, seeds and nuts rich in antioxidants and beta carotenes, vitamins A, C and E, and selenium can reduce the risk of cataracts significantly. Including oily fish or supplementing Omega-3 oils into your daily diet has also shown in studies to be a valuable defence against this eye disease. Smoking and heavy alcohol consumption can push the risk factor up, so get help to cut these habits out of your life, Herbal assistance to reduce and cut out smoking has shown to improve the outcome. Sun protection to reduce the impact of UV rays which can oxidize proteins in the eyes, which changes the structure and increases risks for cataracts. Wear sunglasses and sun hats with wide brims to prevent the ultraviolet rays. Sunglasses should be the ones that block 100% of UV rays and need not be expensive to be effective. Moderate light exposure is important for daily health, however, constant exposure can cause damage. Eye drops can help maintain elasticity and moisture. Avoid the development of type II diabetes by maintaining a healthy weight through moderation in diet and inclusion of regular exercise. Links between the development of cataracts and diabetes show a far higher risk to eye health. Supplementing with high quality vitamins and minerals will help dietary intervention, so please come in to talk with me or one of the other practitioners here at Metro Integrative Pharmacy to get advice on what will best suit your individual lifestyle and requirements. We can give advice in person or by email, and make recommendations to improve your odds against this disease. If you already have cataracts, and will be going for surgical removal, there are many choices here at the store to help improve full recovery following surgery.
Advice from the Nutritionist:
• Eat wild blueberries daily
• Bilberry Extracts
• Consume yellow and orange vegetables
• If a smoker-stop smoking: cadmium from cigarettes affects the eye lens
• Supplement with alpha-lipoic acid
Karen Wright, CNS, MSHNFM, Naturopath, FNLP, CNHP, CHC, LE, DD
Certified Nutrition Specialist
Metro Integrative Pharmacy
Advice from the Pharmacist:
To prevent cataracts, it's important to get antioxidants from eating green leafy vegetables and taking vitamins A,C,E; minerals Selenium and Zinc; carotenoids lutein,Zeaxanthin, Asthaxanthin; fish oil high in DHA.
We have a variety of these supplements in Metro Integrative Pharmacy. We also have homeopathic remedies for treatment of cataracts. Please schedule a free consultation with one of our practitioners to discuss your particular case.
Yeva Pisarevsky R.Ph.
Metro Integrative Pharmacy
This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions about your medical condition. The information in this article is for educational purposes only.