Look sharp: Keep your eye out for cataracts

If you’re over the age of 55, now is a good time to take stock of how well you are caring for your eyes.

Cataracts, which are most often found in people over the age of 55, are the leading cause of blindness worldwide. When a cataract develops, it causes a clouding of all or part of the normally clear lens in the eye, which results in blurred or distorted vision.

The risk for cataracts increases with age, occurring in 30 percent to 40 percent of people over the age of 75, but people younger than 55 can be affected as well.

The exact cause of cataracts is unknown. The damage that occurs to the lens and the subsequent clouding may be due to advancing age, heredity, an injury or disease, excessive exposure to the ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, cigarette smoking or the use of certain medications.

The good news is that there are preventive measures such as: not smoking, reducing exposure to sunlight by wearing UVA/UVB protective eyewear and wide-brimmed hats, controlling diseases like diabetes and eating a healthy diet. Several research studies suggest that the antioxidant vitamins C and E may protect against the development and progression of cataracts. Early evidence also suggests that the carotenoids lutein — pronounced loo-teen — and zeaxanthin — pronounced zee-uh-zan-thin — which are also antioxidants, may be protective against cataracts.

More than half of the observational studies done to look at trends in a given population have reported a reduced risk of cataracts among people who took vitamins C and/or E in supplemental form or through higher dietary intake and who had increased blood levels of one or both vitamins. Long-term use of vitamin C and E supplements for 10 years or more also showed a reduction in risk of cataracts.

Two clinical trials, which compared the results of one group receiving vitamin supplementation vs. one who did not, examined the potential of antioxidant vitamins to slow the progression of cataracts into a more severe form. In one trial, there was no change in the progression of cataracts after seven years. The other study, which used an antioxidant supplement containing higher levels of vitamins C and E and betacarotene than the first study, resulted in a small decrease in the progression of cata-racts in three years.

Good sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits, strawberries, cantaloupe, green peppers and tomatoes. Vitamin E can be found in most nuts and seeds as well as most vegetable oils. Lutein and zeaxanthin are abundant in green leafy vegetables like kale, collard greens and spinach and can also be found in corn, peas, orange peppers and tangerines.

Eye exams should be scheduled yearly.