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Is there any way to delay cataracts?

By Joel Hunter, MD | 12/6/18 7:00 AM
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I wish. I really wish there was a way to delay or prevent cataracts. I’ve heard people say, “when they figure out a cure for cataracts, I bet cataract surgeons won’t like it.” That’s an absurd assumption. I suppose there could be a cataract surgeon who is purely evil and would think that way (I haven’t met him, thank heavens). But I would celebrate with everyone else if a medical cure for the number one cause of blindness in the world. Cataract surgery is amazing and curative. But you know what’s better? Not needing to have any surgery at all.

How do cataracts work?

The reason we can’t find a way to delay cataracts is that it’s more complicated than keeping a clear lens from becoming cloudy. It’s less like trying to keep a window clear and more like trying to stop aging. Scientists haven’t figured out a way to delay aging, even though we have a pretty good idea of what causes it biochemically. The same is true of cataracts.

The lens inside your eye lays down new layers each year, a lot like a tree laying down new rings each year. As the center of the lens gets more compressed over time, it hardens and gets cloudy. There is a type of biochemical bond called a disulfide bond, and it happens between the cysteine amino acids of the crystalline proteins in your eye. Yet, despite every fancy word of that being true, we don’t really have a way to stop it or delay it.

Are there risk factors for cataracts?

The one exception is UV light. Populations near the equator get cataracts quicker than populations far from the equator. So we have a pretty good guess that more UV light over the years will speed up the development of cataracts. In my own experience, however, I’ve noticed anecdotally that there’s not a super tight correlation with UV light. It’s a risk factor, but not a great predictor.

Is there anything I can do?

Living healthy is a good thing. Getting the right vitamins and minerals and antioxidants into your body is a good thing. Wearing sunglasses to minimize UV exposure is also a good thing. Yet, none of these actions can be said to definitively delay cataracts. It’s important to know that when you read about a miracle ingredient that delays cataracts. We just don’t have one yet. But when we do, I will shout it from the mountaintops. I can’t wait.

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