Cataracts are a common cause of poor eyesight as we age. One in every four older Americans has them. Removing cataracts has an obvious benefit: restoring clear vision. But did you know cataract surgery has other benefits not related to the eyes?
“Cataract surgery has evolved to offer more than just improved vision,” says ophthalmologist and Academy member John Hovanesian, MD, a specialist in cataract and corneal surgery. "It enables patients to preserve more beloved abilities and enjoy a better quality of life."
During the procedure, an ophthalmologist replaces the eye's cloudy lens with a new artificial lens, called an intraocular lens or IOL. The IOL often eliminates or reduces the need for glasses by correcting a person's near, middle or distance vision.
This can expand patients’ lifestyles, allowing them to enjoy activities they previously avoided due to poor vision. Cataract surgery has also been shown to reduce the risk of falls — a leading cause of injury in older adults. And new research suggests that removing cataracts can help prevent dementia, too.
Here's what ophthalmologists have to say about these lesser-known benefits of cataract surgery.
#1: Life gets more fun after cataract surgery
There are many aspects of life that we can't control. But cataract patients get a say in how their vision will change. Before the surgery, patients discuss artificial lens options with their ophthalmologist and surgeon. Depending on a person's vision, hobbies, profession and budget, they can choose a new lens that corrects either farsightedness, nearsightedness or astigmatism.
That means many patients may be able to ditch or diminish their reliance on glasses for reading, computer work, watching television and driving. Many patients find that they can resume favorite hobbies.
“Often, cataract surgery can allow patients to do things they haven’t enjoyed in years, such as sewing and reading, because they couldn’t see well enough. Sometimes it creates abilities that people didn’t have before,” says Dr. Hovanesian. “One of my patients always wanted to scuba dive, but was afraid to try because he was very nearsighted. After cataract surgery he had great distance vision without glasses and was finally able to pursue this new passion.”
#2: Cataract treatment prevents injuries from falls
Falls are a leading cause of death and injury among older adults, and the long road to recovery can lead to social isolation and depression.
About 1 in 3 falls occur in older people who wear bifocal or multifocal glasses. These types of spectacles reduce contrast sensitivity and depth perception, which can cause people to trip on curbs or steps.
People are less likely to need multifocal lenses after cataract surgery. Indeed, several studies suggest that cataract removal can reduce the risk of falls.
#3: Removing cataracts may help prevent dementia
The link between vision loss and dementia has been a focus of recent studies. A new report makes a compelling case that cataract removal reduces the risk of developing dementia. The study followed more than 3,000 older adults diagnosed with glaucoma or cataracts for 24 years. Those who had cataract surgery were nearly 30% less likely than others to develop dementia, even after accounting for level of education, race, health history and access to healthcare.
“Cataract surgery allows people to use their visual sense with greater awareness and more involvement in their surroundings,” says Dr. Hovanesian. “When you have better visual acuity, you stimulate parts of the brain that help keep it functioning at a normal level.”
All of these benefits reinforce the need for a comprehensive eye exam at age 40. Regular eye exams can detect and address cataracts and other vision-threatening eye problems. Ophthalmologists can help older adults maintain and improve their quality of life as they age.