For a long time, cataract was considered a condition that only affected people aged 55 years and above. In recent years, however, we have seen more and more cases of cataract in people as young as 35-40 years! While it is true that cataract is more commonly seen in the elderly, many people with certain ‘risk factors’ are developing it at an early age.
What is cataract?
Cataract is a condition in which the eye’s natural lens becomes cloudy, blurred or opaque. This prevents light from passing through the eye lens as it normally does to reflect on to the retina, so that we can see objects clearly. If the condition is not remedied in time, it can significantly impair a person’s vision and even lead to blindness.
Among younger people, the first sign of cataract is difficulty seeing clearly at night or hazy vision that is more noticeable in bright light. In fact, younger cataract patients may not have difficulty seeing with normal levels of light or even while reading a vision chart. They therefore tend to postpone getting screened, allowing the cataract to progress and vision difficulties to become more and more pronounced. India is home to a quarter of the world’s blind population, and cataract is responsible for 50% to 80% of vision impairment cases in the country.
Cataract getting them young?
Experts believe that it is a combination of environmental, genetic and lifestyle factors that makes Indians more susceptible to early cataract. For example, having diabetes doubles a person’s risk for developing cataract. This is because higher than normal levels of blood sugar, which occur during diabetes, leads to glucose accumulation in the eye’s fluid layer that provides the eyes with oxygen and glucose. High glucose levels in the eye interfere with naturally present eye proteins and lead to gradual clouding of the lens and development of cataract. According to the 2017 data, India has nearly 72.9 million people with diabetes, many of whom develop the condition at a younger age.
India also has a high number of people with hypertension, with the condition occurring in younger people. These people are also at a higher risk of developing cataract early, particularly if their disease is not well-controlled. Since Indians are genetically more predisposed to diabetes and hypertension, they are also at a higher risk of early onset of cataract.
Smokers, people who regularly consume steroids and excess alcohol are also at a higher risk. India-specific studies have shown that women cooking with biomass fuel have a higher chance of developing cataract. Since many Indian women from the rural parts of the country still use stoves without chimneys, their eyes are constantly exposed to smoke from burning biomass fuels. Lastly, increasing stress levels and exposure to digital screens also harm the eyes and increase a person’s risk of contracting cataract.
Early intervention is key
Today, more than 80% of all vision impairment cases can be prevented or treated. Despite this promising statistic, it is disheartening to see the number of people who permanently lose their sight to cataract. Everyone above the age of 40 must get their eyes checked regularly. The test takes no more than a few minutes and can detect the condition when it is in in its most early, treatable stages. Advancements in technology have now made it easier for doctors to treat cataract in a less invasive manner.
(The author is chairman, Netradhama Super Speciality Eye Hospital)