Think you are too young to develop cataracts? Think again.
What might surprise you is cataracts do not exclusively afflict those over 40, although older adults do make up the highest number of cases, and the condition is typically a result of age-related changes in the eye. Younger adults and children also suffer from this condition that clouds the eye’s lens, causing blurry, cloudy, dim, or dull vision.
Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide and the leading cause of vision loss in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC estimates the total number of people with cataracts will reach 30.1 million this year.
So, what causes early cataracts in those under 40 and how are they treated? As part of Cataract Awareness Month, we will walk you through all causes, symptoms, and treatment avenues so you have the information you need to advocate for your own eye health.
What Are Cataracts?
To understand early onset cataracts, you should first understand what a cataract is. This condition affects the eye’s typically transparent lens, which is located behind the pupil and the colored iris. Cataracts cloud the lens and can interfere with light passing to the retina. Cataracts cause vision impairment that may make it seem as if you are looking into a smoke-filled room or area of dense fog.
The disease is typically not painful; however, if the cataract has gone untreated for too long, it may cause severe pain and light sensitivity.
A cataract’s beginning stages might not severely affect vision; however, as the cataract progresses, it will begin to impair your daily routine and vision.
Cataracts can develop for many reasons, but the most frequent reason is the aging process. As we age, the natural arrangement of proteins in the lens breaks down. This causes the proteins to eventually cluster together, clouding the lens and creating the cataract. Other factors include exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, eye injury, genetic disorders, steroid use, radiation therapy, smoking, and diabetes. Children can also develop cataracts (acquired cataracts) for some of these same reasons and babies might be born with congenital cataracts.
Types of Cataracts
Below are some of the most common types of cataracts:
- Nuclear Sclerotic — this is a cataract that forms in the center of the eye’s lens slowly over time, causing the lens to harden and become opaque.
- Cortical – this type of cataract occurs when the lens fibers around the lens nucleus become opaque, creating a “spoke-like” appearance. Progression can be over years or over months.
- Posterior Subcapsular – a cataract located directly under the lens capsule that tends to occur in younger patients and may progress more rapidly than a nuclear sclerotic cataract.
Other types of cataracts that can affect younger patients include:
- Diabetic “Snowflake” — a cataract caused by uncontrolled levels of blood sugar that is converted into sorbitol that causes a grayish-white starburst or snowflake appearance, affecting lens clarity.
- Traumatic — caused by penetration or blunt force trauma to the eye.
- Congenital — these cataracts are found in babies’ eyes at birth and most are due to an inherited trait or an underlying systemic disease.
Signs and Symptoms of Early Onset Cataracts
The risk of developing cataracts is higher for those with a family history of the disease, so it is important to keep your eye doctor aware of your family’s health history. Your yearly eye exam is a great time to inform your doctor of any developments with your vision as well as any health-related discoveries within your family.
Schedule an eye exam if you notice any of the following cataract symptoms:
- Blurry vision
- Nighttime glare
- Double vision
- The need for extra light to read
- Seeing bright colors as dull or yellow
- A white or grayish discoloration of the pupil
Cataracts in Infants and Children
Pediatric cataracts could look as small as tiny dots or as large as dense clouds, and appear in various parts of the eye’s lens, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Usually found during routine infant exams before a newborn leaves the hospital, congenital cataracts can result from genetics, certain health conditions, or intrauterine infection or trauma.
Ophthalmologists aim to find and correct these immediately because the baby’s eyes and brain are just learning to see, and cataracts can affect the development of the eye-brain connection, leading to vision loss.
As for acquired cataracts in children, pediatricians usually diagnose these at vision screenings or after an eye injury.
We have discussed why it is important for infants and children to have cataracts removed as soon as possible. If you suspect your child has cataracts, we encourage you to call 405.271.1094 or 800.787.9016 to schedule an appointment with one of our pediatric ophthalmologists who specialize in pediatric cataracts, Maria E. Lim, MD, or Emily M. Zepeda, MD.
For adults, cataract symptoms may be remedied at first with stronger lighting and eyeglasses; however, if vision impairment interferes with your daily activities, you should consider cataract surgery.