Cataracts are changes in clarity of the natural lens inside the eye that gradually degrade visual quality. The natural lens sits behind the colored part of the eye (iris) in the area of the pupil, and cannot be directly seen with the naked eye unless it becomes extremely cloudy. The lens plays a crucial role in focusing unimpeded light on the retina at the back of the eye. The retina transforms light to a neurologic signal that the brain interprets as vision. Significant cataracts block and distort light passing through the lens, causing visual symptoms and complaints.
The term cataract is derived from the Greek word cataractos, which describes rapidly running water. When water is turbulent, it is transformed from a clear medium to white and cloudy. Keen Greek observers noticed similar-appearing changes in the eye and attributed visual loss from "cataracts" as an accumulation of this turbulent fluid, having no knowledge of the anatomy of the eye or the status or importance of the lens.
Cataract development is usually a very gradual process of normal aging but can occasionally occur rapidly. Many people are in fact unaware that they have cataracts because the changes in their vision have been so gradual. Cataracts commonly affect both eyes, but it is not uncommon for cataracts in one eye to advance more rapidly. Cataracts are very common, affecting roughly 60% of people over the age of 60, and over 1.5 million cataract surgeries are performed in the United States each year.
Experts have estimated that visual disability associated with cataracts accounts for over 8 million physician office visits a year in the United States. This number will likely continue to increase as the proportion of people over the age of 60 rises. When people develop cataracts, they begin to have difficulty doing activities they need to do for daily living or for enjoyment. Some of the most common complaints include difficulty driving at night, reading, participating in sports such as golfing, or traveling to unfamiliar areas; these are all activities for which clear vision is essential.
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