Over the course of the past year, my 70-something neighbor Harold went from being a social butterfly to a recluse. He gave up his daily walks and weekly poker nights…no longer goes with his wife to the market or movie theater…and spends most of his time at home, listening to the radio or just moping around.
The problem, his wife told me, was that his cataracts were affecting his eyesight so much that he’s no longer comfortable going out. Though his eye doctor had recommended cataract surgery, Harold was afraid that something would go wrong and he’d wind up with even worse vision.
I suggested that Harold’s wife urge him to go ahead with the surgery. Not only is it very likely to restore his vision, but according to a new study, it might even help him live longer! Here’s the connection…
CLOUDS IN THE EYES
A cataract occurs when the eye’s natural lens, which normally is transparent, gradually grows cloudy as proteins in the lens degrade. Cataracts can affect one or both eyes. Vision becomes increasingly blurred, colors seem to fade and glare worsens. Worldwide, cataracts are a leading cause of blindness. The risk of developing cataracts increases with age—in fact, by age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had surgery to remove the cloudy lens and replace it with an artificial lens.
Researchers in Australia wanted to find out whether cataract surgery to correct visual impairment improves long-term survival for older people. They looked at data on 354 cataract patients ages 49 and up, some of whom had elected to have surgery to correct their vision problem and some of whom opted against surgery. Then the researchers adjusted for other factors that could influence longevity, including age, gender, body mass index, smoking, and other health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
What they discovered: Compared with participants who chose not to have surgery, those who did have cataract surgery were 40% less like to die from any cause during the 15-year study follow-up period.
Cataracts are not directly life-threatening, and no one claims that the operation to remove them is directly essential to survival. And as the researchers pointed out, their study showed only an association between untreated cataracts and increased mortality—it certainly did not suggest that cataracts cause death.
So what explains the connection? What came to my mind was that maybe people who elect not to have cataract surgery are the kind of people who also elect to skip other important medical procedures or neglect to follow medical advice in general, thus increasing their mortality risk. Or it might be that vision problems pose an indirect threat by contributing to social withdrawal, depression and a more sedentary lifestyle—all of which carry health risks. Conversely, correcting the poor eyesight caused by cataracts can help restore independence, improve physical and emotional well-being, increase the ability to comply with prescription medications (in part by making it easier to read the instructions on medication labels), and boost optimism and motivation to pursue a healthy lifestyle—all of which promote longevity.
If you have cataracts: Talk with your eye doctor about the benefits and risks of surgery. With the most common surgery today, called phacoemulsification, a small incision is made on the side of the cornea, then a tiny probe emits ultrasound waves that soften and break up the lens proteins so that the lens can be removed by suction. The clouded natural lens usually is replaced with a permanent artificial lens. This outpatient procedure takes less than 30 minutes per eye, does not require general anesthesia, causes minimal discomfort and leads to improved vision in more than 80% of surgical patients. Complications (such as bleeding, infection, decreased vision or retinal detachment) are rare.
Until you have surgery (or if you do opt against it), you can protect your eyes by wearing sunglasses and a hat with a brim when outdoors during the day…not smoking…and eating nutritious foods, especially antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits.