Blurred vision, washed-out colors and problems seeing at night? To most eyeglass wearers, symptoms such as these would signal it was time to get a stronger prescription. But for thousands of middle-aged and otherwise healthy individuals, they could be the early signs of cataracts.

Cataracts are a form of eye damage in which there is a loss of transparency in the lens of the eye which in turn clouds your vision. If left untreated, cataracts can lead to blindness.

What are the risk factors to forming cataracts?

1. AGE

Nearly everyone who lives long enough will develop cataracts to some extent. Some people develop cataracts during their middle-aged years (40s and 50s), but these cataracts tend to be very small. It is after age 60 that cataracts are most likely to affect vision. Nearly half of people age 75 and older have cataracts.

2. GENDER

Women face a higher risk than men.

3. FAMILY HISTORY

Cataracts tend to run in families.

4. RACE AND ETHNICITY

African-Americans seem to have nearly twice the risk of developing cataracts than do Caucasians. This difference may be due to other medical illnesses, particularly diabetes. African-Americans are much more likely to become blind from cataracts and glaucoma than Caucasians, mostly due to lack of treatment.

Hispanic Americans are also at increased risk for cataracts. In fact, cataracts are the leading cause of visual impairment among Hispanics.

5. DIABETES AND OTHER MEDICAL CONDITIONS

People with certain medical conditions, notably diabetes, are at high risk for cataracts, either because of a direct effect of the disease, its treatments, or both. Obesity is also a risk factor for cataracts.

6. OVEREXPOSURE TO SUNLIGHT

Exposure to even low-level UVB radiation from sunlight increases the risk for cataracts, especially nuclear cataracts. The risk may be highest among those who have significant sun exposure at a young age. People whose jobs expose them to sunlight for prolonged periods are also at increased risk.

7. SMOKING AND ALCOHOL USE

Smoking. Smoking a pack a day of cigarettes may double the risk of developing cataracts. Smokers are at particular risk for cataracts located in the nuclear portion of the lens, which limit vision more severely than cataracts in other sites.

Alcohol. Chronic heavy drinkers are at high risk for a number of eye disorders, including cataracts.

8. ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS

Long-term environmental lead exposure may increase the risk of developing cataracts. Gold and copper accumulation may also cause cataracts. Prolonged exposure to ionizing radiation (such as x-rays) can increase cataract risk.

If you do end up with cataracts and have avoided all the risks factors above, don’t despair. Cataract surgery is one of the most commonly performed surgeries in the United States today with more than three million procedures a year. And, there have been some remarkable advances in cataract surgery, including the availability of a bladeless (no knife) laser version.

With cataract surgery, a cataract surgeon is able to create a corneal incision and then insert a miniature ultrasound tube to remove the crystallized natural lens. Through the same incision, the cataract surgeon will then insert a new artificial lens that helps restore the patient’s vision. This replacement lens is called an intraocular lens, or IOL.

Most patients can see some improvement in vision the same day. Today, nearly any type of cataract can be removed in an efficient manner.

If you have cataracts, talk with your eye doctor to find out your treatment options.