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Cataracts are the leading cause of vision loss in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They typically develop after age 55, but younger patients can be affected as well, including some infants at birth. About 18% of Americans aged 40 or older (more than 25 million people) have a cataract in one or both eyes.

Cataracts progress in stages, but the development of the condition depends on age, exposure to UV experienced over a lifetime, genetic factors and some lifestyle factors, such as smoking, high alcohol consumption or nutritional deficiencies. People with diabetes are at higher risk, as are those who take certain prescription medicines, such as corticosteroids or phenothiazine-related medications.

However, there are steps you can take at each stage to help. Being proactive about the health of your eyes is key.  

What is the First Sign of Cataracts?

In each eye, you have a very thin lens behind your pupil and iris. The lens operates much like a camera lens would; it focuses what you see, monitors the amount of light to let in and transitions between near and far vision as you change your view. The lens is made of protein, and when you get older, some of that protein can begin clinging to the lens, clouding small areas of your vision and making it harder for the eye to focus properly. This is a cataract beginning to form. 

Over time, it grows larger, makes it harder and harder to see clearly and can affect one or more areas of your vision.  

Early symptoms of a cataract forming can be any of the following, according to the National Eye Institute:

  • Your vision seems cloudy, fuzzy or blurry
  • You notice more glare from lamps, bright sunlight or headlights. You might also begin to see a “halo” around lights
  • Your night vision is deteriorating
  • You experience double or multiple vision in one eye (this tends to happen in the earlier stages)
  • Colors seem faded. However, you may not recognize a change in color brightness because it happens over a long period of time. Often, after cataract surgery, one of the things patients comment on is how much brighter colors are.
  • You need more frequent changes to your vision prescription for glasses or contact lenses

What are the Different Stages of Cataracts? 

Cataracts progress through different stages as they get larger and takeover more of your natural lens. If the cataract is located in the center of your lens, it’s called a nuclear cataract. When located in the area that surrounds the nucleus, it’s called a cortical cataract. When located in the back, outer layer of the lens, it’s called a posterior capsular cataract. Early symptoms can worsen as a cataract increases.

The four stages of cataracts are as follows 

  • Early cataract: The very beginnings of cataract disease. The lens is still clear, but the ability to change focus between near and far vision has begun to be compromised.  You may see the beginnings of blurring or cloudiness, glare from lights may begin to bother you and you may feel increasing eye strain. 
  • Immature cataract: Proteins have started to cloud the lens, making it slightly opaque, especially in the center. At this point, your ophthalmologist would recommend new glasses, anti-glare lenses and increased attention to the light, such as that needed to read properly. Progression of an immature cataract can take up to several years. 
  • Mature cataract: The opaqueness has increased to such a point that it can appear milky and white, or amber in color. It has spread to the edges of the lens and has a considerable effect on vision. At this point, your ophthalmologist would ask you how quality of life and daily activities are affected. If the cataract seriously affects your life, removal surgery may be recommended. 
  • Hypermature cataract: The cataract has become very dense, impairing vision to a significant extent, and has hardened. At this point it would impair vision to an advanced stage. It can be more difficult to remove. If not treated, hypermature cataracts can cause inflammation in the eye and/or increased pressure within the eye, which can cause glaucoma.  

See the infographic below for more detail on how cataracts progress (click to enlarge).

What Happens if Cataracts are Left Untreated?

Progression of and treatment of cataracts varies by the individual. Some people have cataracts that do not impair their activities or lifestyle, which means removal can be delayed; however, they do become denser and harder to remove.

However, in cases where the cataract can induce glaucoma or it impairs the view of the retina, your ophthalmologist may recommend cataract surgery. At Southwestern Eye Center, our opthamologists work with patients to weigh the risk of surgery against potential benefits to vision, eye health and as a result, lifestyle. 

Take our cataract self-evaluation.

Learn More About Cataracts

At Southwestern Eye Center, we pride ourselves on being a valuable resource for anyone seeking information about cataracts and cataract surgery. Visit our Cataract page to find out what happens during cataract surgery and recovery, and how to choose the right implantable lens for you. For more information on cataracts and the latest news in vision health care, visit our blog.

To schedule a consultation with one of our highly-experienced cataract specialists, please fill out our contact form