Even if you’ve been wearing eyeglasses or contact lenses for years, once you reach your 40s, you’ll probably experience some new changes with your vision. But by your mid-50s to 60s, you may notice it’s increasingly hard to see things close up or difficult to drive at night – and even updating your prescription more regularly doesn’t get rid of the blur, double vision, glare or other symptoms.

One of the most common reasons for vision changes at this stage of life can be the development of a cataract in one or both of your eyes.

Below, we explain what cataracts are, why and how they develop, and what you can do if you think you have them.

Cataracts are cloudy areas that form in the natural lenses of your eyes. The lens helps ensure that light hits your retina – the part of your eye that processes visual information – in just the right way to form clear images. So, when a cataract or another condition affects the lens, your eyesight can become distorted. It’s like having dust on the lens of a camera.

Types of cataracts

  • Nuclear cataracts affect the center of the lens. And sometimes they can actually improve close-range vision, but only temporarily. This temporary improvement is known as “second sight,” and can be strong enough for you to read without glasses or contact lenses. But as things progress, this improvement goes away, and the lens becomes cloudier and cloudier. Nuclear cataracts can also cause your lenses to become increasingly tinted yellow or brown.
  • Cortical cataracts affect the edges of the lens and are often wedge-shaped. As they develop, they extend toward the center of the lens, further interfering with vision.
  • Posterior subcapsular cataracts affect the back of the lens. They often cause sensitivities to light and develop faster than other kinds of cataracts. For example, they can make it harder to see in bright light and add glare or halos to lights in dark environments. Unlike nuclear cataracts, posterior subscapular cataracts can make it harder to read from the get-go.
  • Congenital cataracts are cataracts that are present at birth or that develop during childhood. They’re caused by genetics or medical conditions.

What are the symptoms of cataracts?

The big question on your mind right now is probably: How do I know if I have cataracts? An experienced eye doctor can tell you for sure. But some of the signs of cataracts to look for include:

  • Blurry, cloudy or dim vision
  • Difficulty seeing at night
  • Double vision
  • Sensitivity to bright light and glare (for example, seeing a “halo” around lights, especially oncoming headlights when driving)
  • Needing more light when reading or doing other activities
  • Changes in the way you see color (for example, seeing colors as tinted or faded)
  • Frequent changes in optical prescriptions
  • Temporary improvement in near vision (“second sight”)

The symptoms of cataracts can vary depending on what kind you have and how quickly they progress. Most cataracts develop slowly and will not impact your vision right away, but over time you may start to experience more symptoms that interfere with your vision. If you start to notice any of the symptoms listed here, you should make an appointment with an eye expert to get an official diagnosis.

What causes cataracts and how do they form?

Cataracts are often just another part of aging. In fact, most people will develop a cataract before the age of 65. As we age, the proteins in the lens of the eye start to break down and clump together. As the clump grows it forms a cloudy area on your lens, or a cataract. But cataracts can be caused by other things as well.

These risk factors can cause cataracts to develop quicker or earlier in life:

  • Exposure to X-rays, sunlight and ultraviolet radiation from sunlight or tanning beds
  • Overuse of tobacco or heavy alcohol consumption
  • Use of steroid medications
  • Low levels of antioxidants like vitamin C and E in your diet
  • Conditions such as diabetes, glaucoma, hypothyroidism, high blood pressure or autoimmune disorders
  • Eye injuries and eye diseases
  • Vision problems like myopia

What do cataracts look like?

It can be hard to visually tell the difference between an eye with cataracts and one without because cataracts impact the lens, or area behind your pupil. But if a cataract is very advanced, you may notice your pupils have a hazy or cloudy appearance when you look in the mirror. If you have uncontrolled diabetes, you may see a grayish-white starburst in your pupil that looks like a snowflake. If you start to notice any changes to the appearance of your eye or pupil, you should make an appointment with an eye expert to get an official diagnosis.

What is the treatment for cataracts?

Surgery is the only effective way to treat cataracts. Cataract surgery is an elective surgery, so you’ll work with your care team to schedule it when it makes the most sense. Surgery is scheduled when your surgeon has deemed the procedure medically necessary – which is also needed for the surgery to be covered by your insurance.

Since cataracts tend to develop slowly, you may choose not to have cataract surgery right away. Until it’s time for surgery, cataracts can be managed with lifestyle adjustments, such as:

  • Keeping the prescription of your glasses or contact lenses updated.
  • Giving yourself enough light in dark environments.
  • Wearing sunglasses or billed hats in bright environments.

While your cataracts might remain manageable for quite some time, there will likely come a point where they’re interfering with your quality of life. If your contacts or eyeglasses are no longer clearing your vision and daily activities like reading or driving have become difficult, it may be time to consider surgery.

How do you prevent cataracts?

There isn’t a proven way to prevent cataracts from forming. However, doctors do believe that there are some things you can do to monitor and delay cataract growth:

  • Have regular eye appointments. Getting your eyes examined regularly is one of the most effective ways to stay on top of any changes that may be occurring.
  • Wear sunglasses. On top of helping you see better in bright environments, sunglasses that block ultraviolet rays from entering your eyes can help prevent long-term damage to your retinas and natural lenses.
  • Take steps to manage health conditions. Your body is a vast network of connections and relationships. Doing what you can to maintain or improve certain aspects of your health can have unexpected positive effects on others. For example, conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure are known to be risk factors for cataract development, which is all the more reason to take steps to manage them.
  • Quit smoking. Along with the more well-known benefits associated with quitting smoking, removing a risk factor for developing cataracts is one that you might not have been aware of.
  • Reduce alcohol consumption. Practicing moderation with alcohol is important for a number of reasons. Cataract prevention may not be the most obvious, but it may be a nice bonus.

Seeing the signs of cataracts?

Aging can cause several changes to your eyes, from noticing more eye floaters to seeing symptoms of cataracts. Cataracts are extremely common and very treatable. If you think you might be developing cataracts, taking steps to improve your eye health is a great place to start.

In addition, having your eyes examined by a cataract expert can determine exactly where you’re at, and what you should do next. If cataract surgery is not recommended at this time, your doctor may recommend annual monitoring to assess the cataracts development progression.