Preventing Cataracts Practical Steps to Maintain Eye Health
Whether you’re 18 or 81, you’re never too young to look after your eyes. Though many common eye conditions that lead to vision loss affect people as they get older, lifestyle factors have also been shown to contribute to vision problems. it makes sense to try to adopt the right lifestyle habits as early as possible, to maintain healthy eyesight for as long as possible.
One of the most common eye conditions in older people is cataracts. According to the RNIB, developing cataracts is a normal part of growing older. Most people start to develop them after the age of 65.i
A cataract happens when the lens inside your eye develops cloudy patches. Normally the lens – which helps to focus the light that enters your eye – is clear. If you develop cataracts, however, the lens becomes cloudy. This makes your eyesight misty too. Both eyes are usually affected, one typically worse than the other – though it’s also possible to get a cataract in just one eye.
While it’s true that age can greatly affect the chance of cataracts, other things also increase the risk of developing them. With lifestyle, these include poor diet, smoking, drinking alcohol excessively, being obese, and overexposure to ultraviolet radiation - from sunlight and other sources - during your lifetime.
If other members of your family have had cataracts, your risk may be higher too. The likelihood of developing cataracts if you have diabetes rises too, as can having high blood pressure; or even being severely short-sighted.
Taking certain medicines have been linked with developing cataracts too. For instance, if you’ve used hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for a long time (more than 10 years), or if you’ve been a long-term user of steroid medicines, your cataract risk may be higher than average.
How to protect your vision
The good news is that - while there’s no sure-fire way to avoid cataracts altogether - there are things you can do that help delay them, keeping your vision as healthy as possible.
Have regular eye tests
As with most health issues, spotting a problem early can make all the difference, as the earlier you get treatment the more successful the outcome may be. This is just as relevant for your vision, especially as you get older. So try to make sure you go for an NHS eye test as often as your optician advises (the health service says most people should get their eyes tested every two years, though some may need a test more often.)ii
Having regular eye tests lets your optician check for the early signs of cataracts and other vision problems such as glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration.
Give up smoking
Smoking is a known risk factor for the development of cataractsiii - and stopping can reduce your risk. According to one study, giving up smoking reduces the risk of needing cataract surgery. They also found it takes time for the risk to decline, suggesting that the earlier you stop, the better.iv
Quitting smoking is rarely easy: so if you want to help manage your symptoms from nicotine withdrawal, over-the-counter products such as nicotine patches, lozenges and gum can give extra support.
Protect your eyes in the sun
According to the US-based National Eye Institute, wearing sunglasses and a hat with a brim to block ultraviolet sunlight may help delay cataracts.v The American Academy of Ophthalmology also suggests wearing sunglasses that screen out UV light may slow cataract development down.vi They also recommend wearing regular glasses with a clear anti-UV coating.
Maintain a healthy weight
Obesity is linked to cataracts, and many studies link obesity with the risk of age-related cataracts.vii However, evidence that losing weight might reduce your risk is currently controversial, suggesting the best form of prevention is to try to avoid gaining a lot of weight.
For those who are already overweight or obese, lowering your weight can help reduce risks of potentially serious health problems that are also linked to cataract development, including high blood pressure and diabetes.viii
For more about losing weight, visit our pharmacy guide Weight Loss: The Facts.
Drink alcohol in moderation
Drinking alcohol excessively is thought to increase the risk of age-related cataracts. However, some studies also show that drinking moderately may actually help protect against cataracts.ix In the UK, the government recommends a maximum of 14 units a week on a regular basis, to keep alcohol-related health risks low.
According to the charity Drinkaware, 14 units is the equivalent of six pints of 4% beer, six 175ml glasses of 13% wine and 14 single measures (25ml) of 40% spirits.x
Eat a nutritious diet
The role of diet - and taking supplements - to prevent cataracts has interested experts for a long time. One main area they study is antioxidants; including antioxidant vitamins, and antioxidant compounds derived from plant pigments called carotenoids.
One large-scale study suggests taking vitamin C supplements long term may reduce the need for cataract surgery.xi Another found that vitamin E – an antioxidant vitamin like vitamin C – and the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin may also protect against cataracts.xii
You can find out more about lutein and zeaxanthin, and how to include more of them in your diet here What Foods Contain Lutein and Zeaxanthin: Eating for Eye Health
Overall diet can have a role too, as some researchers suggest fish eaters, vegetarians and vegans may be at lower risk of developing cataracts than meat eaters.xiii
Maintaining healthy vision is the best way to prevent cataracts. To learn more, visit our Vision Health Hub with information on eye conditions, and stacks of advice on keeping your eyesight healthy.
Royal National Institute of Blind People [RNIB]. (2016). Available online: https://www.rnib.org.uk/sites/default/files/2019_Understanding_Cataracts_2.pdf
National Health Service [NHS]. (2016). Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/nhs-services-and-treatments/how-often-can-i-have-a-free-nhs-eye-test
Ye, E., et al. Smoking and Risk of Age-Related Cataract: A Meta-Analysis. Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science. (June 2012). Vol.53, 3885-3895.Available online: https://iovs.arvojournals.org/article.aspx?articleid=2128544
Lindblad, B.E., Hakansson, N, Wolk, A. Smoking cessation and the risk of cataract: a prospective cohort study of cataract extraction among men. JAMA Ophthalmol. (2014 Mar) ;132(3):253-7. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24385206
National Eye Institute [NEI]. (2015). Available online: https://nei.nih.gov/health/cataract/cataract_facts
Boyd, K. (2015). American Association of Ophthalmology [AAO]. Available online: https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/what-are-cataracts.
Cheung, N., Wong, T.Y Obesity and Eye Diseases. Surv Ophthalmol. (2007) ;52(2): 180–195. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC26980266
National Health Service [NHS]. (2018) Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/lifestyle/what-are-the-health-benefits-of-losing-weight
Gong, Y., et al. Different amounts of alcohol consumption and cataract: a meta-analysis. Optom Vis Sci. (2015 Apr) ;2(4):471-9. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2578553
Drink Aware UK. Available online: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/alcoholic-drinks-units/latest-uk-alcohol-unit-guidance
Hankinson, S.E., Stampfer, M.J., Seddon, J.M., et al. Nutrient intake and cataract extraction in women: a prospective study. BMJ. (1992) ;305:335-339. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1392884
Christen, W.G., Liu, S., Glynn, R.J., et al. Dietary carotenoids, vitamins C and E, and risk of cataract in women: a prospective study. Arch Ophthalmol. (2008 Jan) ;126(1):102-9. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18195226?dopt=Abstract
Appleby, P.N., Allen, N.E., Key, T.J., et al. Diet, vegetarianism, and cataract risk. Am J Clin Nutr. (2011 May) ;3(5):1128-35. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21430115?dopt=Abstract
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Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.