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June is Cataracts Awareness Month. As the year nears its midpoint, aging adults are advised to pause and learn more about a vision-worsening condition that occurs around age 40 when proteins in the eye lens begin to break down, clump and form a cloudy area over time. Cataracts affect 70 percent of adults by age 75, and recent CDC data* indicate more than 17% of adults above age 40 have a cataract in one or both eyes.

Cataracts cannot be naturally prevented from forming. Research has shown, however, that lifestyle and health behavior influence when and how early a cataract starts to form. The American Association of Ophthalmology (AAO) overviews several key areas of behavioral practice for aging adults to be aware of that can lower risk for and/or delay development of cataracts.

* Risk factors linked to early development and quicker progression of cataracts include excessive sunlight exposure, smoking, and long-term use of steroid medication. Medical conditions linked to higher risk include diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and prior eye surgery or eye injuries. Aging adults should discuss their health behaviors and history with their eye specialist to evaluate risk for developing cataracts and other age-related eye diseases.

* A healthy diet may reduce risk of and/or delay formation and progression of cataracts. Research suggests that a diet high in vitamin C-rich foods — citrus (oranges, kiwi, lemon, grapefruit), bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower) — is helpful in slowing the progression of cataracts. More importantly, adopting good nutrition is a cornerstone of optimizing health early in life and can greatly reduce the risk of developing age-related, vision-worsening conditions like cataracts.

* By age 40, all asymptomatic adults should visit an eye specialist for a comprehensive eye exam to screen for early-stage cataracts and other age-related eye diseases that are leading causes of blindness and low vision. By age 65, a routine eye exam is recommended every year, in most cases to diagnose cataracts that are progressively clouding the lens. Scheduling a comprehensive eye exam when recommended by age and frequency allows eye specialists to detect and monitor cataract progression. Patients should discuss with their eye specialist their personal readiness to surgically remove cataract(s) at the point worsening vision has compromised quality of life and normal function.

Multiple factors are at play that increase our risk for developing a degenerative eye disease or vision compromising condition as we age.  If an individual lives long enough, then cataract formation is unavoidable. Living a healthy lifestyle, however, greatly improves an adult’s odds of avoiding early onset, faster progression, or possibly avoiding the need for cataract surgery in the future.

As the year nears its midpoint, UNC Department of Ophthalmology strongly encourages those in need of a comprehensive eye exam to call UNC Kittner Eye Center at 984-974-2020 to schedule an appointment with a faculty ophthalmologist or optometrist. To learn more about degenerative and vision-worsening eye diseases that affect senior adults, visit the AAO’s Eye Health Information for Adults Over 65 page.
* CDC Vision Health Initiative – Common Eye Disorders and Diseases (Cataract)