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When you think about someone with cataracts, you might imagine someone who has passed their 60th birthday since the condition is generally associated with an older demographic.

Yet, there are people with this condition in their 20’s and 30’s – even at birth. Individuals who develop cataracts early in life are said to have early-onset cataracts. What causes these premature cataracts? What are the symptoms and how is this condition treated?

This article will provide answers to these questions.

What are cataracts?

The National Eye Institute (NEI) defines cataracts as when the lens in one or both eyes become opaque, impacting one’s ability to see. Before the age of 80, most people will have cataracts. There are two ways that age-related cataracts impact vision:

  • Protein in the eye clumps together reducing the light that gets to the retina
  • The lens gradually becomes a darker color

If the condition is age-related, the symptoms naturally worsen over time. The most common symptoms include blurry or double vision, muted colors, glare sensitivity and poor night vision. Cataract sufferers may also experience halo vision and frequent prescriptions changes.

During the early stages of cataract formation, your doctor can suggest preventive steps to maintain the health of the eye. Early-stage cataracts may be treated with eyeglass or contact lens prescriptions, surgery may be recommended if vision is severely impacted.  Unless there are contraindications, these treatments are standard for all types of cataracts.

Causes of premature cataracts

Rather than physical changes associated with advanced age, early onset cataracts can have a variety of causes, including:

  • Injury
  • Disease
  • Radiation exposure
  • Drug reactions
  • Congenital conditions
  • Lifestyle choices, including smoking and being obese
  • Eye surgery (retina)

Let’s look deeper into how these types of cataracts occur, as well as their treatment options.

Injury: Traumatic cataract

A penetrating or blunt force injury to the eye can result in damage that could cause a portion of an eye’s lens to become cloudy, or opaque, often resulting in a “stellate” or star-type pattern.

Treatment depends on several factors, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), including:

  • Whether the trauma was blunt or penetrating
  • How bad the damage was
  • Whether the damage is expanding or fixed
  • Whether the patient is in good health
  • Whether age-related cataract symptoms are also present

If an eye doctor recommends surgery, the surgical cataract extraction of a cataract formed by trauma is less complicated than cases where aging factors are also present.

If you have had a traumatic injury to your eye, contact your eye doctor immediately for treatment and to help prevent further damage.

Disease: Diabetes

A 2018 study published in the journal, Eye, states that the risk of cataracts in diabetic patients is double that of individuals who do not have the disease. Additionally, the risk is highest for those who are between the ages of 45 and 54.

The cause of early-onset cataracts in diabetic patients is uncontrolled blood sugar, according to the AAO. The nourishing properties of the aqueous humor are impacted by unchecked glucose, which can cause lens opacity. The best ways to prevent early-onset cataracts if you are diabetic include:

  • Controlling your blood sugar
  • Having regular checkups with your eye doctor

Drug reaction

Some medical authorities believe the on-going use of certain drugs, such as statins and steroids, can contribute to early cataract formation. A 2014 study that appeared in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology shows that there is a connection between statin use and the formation of cataracts that require surgical intervention.

However, the study also noted that the population who takes statins to control cholesterol is the same population that is at higher risk of cataract formation, so further studies are needed.

For the best outcome for ongoing medical treatment, follow the doctor’s instructions and report any changes in your vision or health to ensure early intervention.

Radiation exposure

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says individuals who are exposed to low-dose ionizing radiation, such as x-ray and CT scans, may be at a higher risk for developing eye lens opacity.

This not only has implications for radiology technicians and health care personnel who are exposed to x-rays in intervention and catheterization labs, but also individuals who have completed cancer radiation treatments and multiple CT scans.

Professionals who work with radiology should follow the safety considerations that are outlined in the Radiation Safety Considerations authored by the United States Drug Administration (USDA) to help prevent damage from radiation exposure. Patients who receive radiation treatments or CT scans regularly should inform their eye doctor.

Lifestyle and premature cataracts

According to the Mayo Clinic, some lifestyle choices may cause early-onset cataracts:

  • Exposure to too much sun, particularly ultraviolet (UV) rays
  • Smoking
  • Obesity

Currently, there are no proven ways to prevent cataracts, but there are ways to help maintain good eye health. Medical professionals recommend that patients:

  • Quit smoking
  • Reduce obesity
  • Wear UV-protective sunglasses

Another way to maintain healthy eyes is to get regular eye exams. If your general health changes or if you experience any vision changes, it is important to speak with your eye doctor.

If you’re searching for an eye doctor to help maintain healthy vision, make an appointment with the doctors at Southwestern Eye Center today.