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The Truth About Cataracts and Cataract Surgery

En español l A new AARP-Alcon survey finds many are misinformed about cataract surgery. Here's the straight scoop if you or a parent is facing the procedure.

Cataracts surgery doctor (Paul Blow)

Cataract surgery can help restore your vision.

Myth: Cataract surgery is painful.

Fact: It can be uncomfortable but shouldn't hurt. After sedating you, the doctor will numb your eye, make a small incision through which the cataract can be broken up with ultrasound, and replace the clouded lens with a synthetic one. Four out of five people in the new AARP-Alcon Eye Health Study report that the surgery was easier than they had expected.

surgery calendar (Paul Blow)

Recovery from cataract surgery is quicker than you think.

Myth: I will be able to tell when I need surgery.

Fact: Most people with cataracts don't realize how cloudy their vision has become. Before surgery, most say cataracts don't interfere with their daily activities. But after the procedure, 62 percent find they're enjoying life more. Although the need for surgery tends to peak in those in their 60s and 70s, cataracts can develop much earlier.

Cataract surgery isn't as scary as you think.

Myth: Cataracts are unrelated to overall health.

Fact: "There are multiple links between systemic disease and the formation of cataracts," says Brian Proctor, D.O., an ophthalmologist at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park, Illinois. Cataracts are a known side effect of diabetes and high blood pressure, for instance. The formation of cataracts is also associated with the use of steroid medications.

Driving (Paul Blow)

Seeing halos? You may have cataracts.

Myth: It's normal to see halos around lights.

Fact: Along with cloudy vision, halos are a classic symptom of cataracts, says Proctor. Four out of five people in the AARP-Alcon study who had cataract surgery found it easier to drive afterward, both during the daytime and at night. (Halos can be a sign of corneal disease, too; if you're seeing them, be sure to have your eyes checked.)

You may not need reading glasses after cataract surgery.

Myth: I'll need reading glasses after cataract surgery.

Fact: Not necessarily. Multifocal and "monovision" replacement lenses correct vision at various points, near and far, and can sometimes reduce the need for glasses. Medicare considers multifocal lenses an upgrade beyond standard replacement ones, however. So if you want the specialty lenses, plan on paying extra for them, out of pocket.

Cataract surgery dangerous (Paul Blow)

Don't let cloudy vision affect your daily routine.

Myth: Surgery can wait — I won't go blind.

Fact: Cataracts normally take years to develop, but they can progress to the point that you no longer see people and things (you may perceive light). Although cataract surgery almost always restores sight, doctors prefer that you schedule the operation before lenses get hard, which happens with age and makes them harder to break up and replace.

Cataracts surgery delivery (Paul Blow)

Is your vision loss affecting you on the job?

Myth: Cataracts always require surgery.

Fact: The decision to have a cataract taken out should be based on whether it's limiting your vision and quality of life. "For people in certain occupations, such as an architect or a truck driver, even a little loss of vision interferes with what they do on a daily basis," Proctor says, "while other people may be happy to wait because they're seeing all they need to see." 

Cataracts surgery eye examination (Paul Blow)

Make sure to get your eyes checked if experiencing changes in vision.

Myth: It takes weeks to recover from cataract surgery.

Fact: Cataract surgery is much easier than it used to be. "A lot of people have 20/20 vision the very next day, though some people take up to a week to see well out of the affected eye," says Proctor. "It depends on how much power we use to break up the lens." The more force required, the more swelling you'll experience." Since most doctors don't use sutures anymore, there aren't any physical limitations," Proctor says. You will be cautioned not to rub or press your eyes immediately after surgery, however.

Cataracts surgery eye examination (Paul Blow)

Getting older doesn't necessarily mean you will be getting cataracts.

Myth: Cataracts are inevitable.

Fact: Not necessarily. By age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery, according to the National Eye Institute. That means nearly half have clear vision. "There's clearly a genetic component," says David McCartney, M.D., chair of the department of ophthalmology and visual sciences at Texas Tech University. "We all have patients ages 80 or 90 who will never need cataract surgery."

Cataracts surgery sunglasses (Paul Blow)

Wear your sunglasses! It may help slow cataract growth.

Myth: There's nothing you can do to slow the development of cataracts.

Fact: Cataracts are a natural part of aging; however, you can protect your eyes by always donning shades when you're out in the sun — summer or winter. "Chronic ultraviolet radiation exposure can help cataracts grow faster," Proctor says. Some data suggests that nutritional supplements containing zinc, lutein, and zeaxanthin — such as those formulated to lower the risk for macular degeneration — may also help slow cataract growth. "The evidence is mixed, but there's little risk to trying it," McCartney says.

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