The 2018 Market Scope IOL Report estimates there are about 28 million cataract operations performed around the world every year. That’s a lot of people with cataracts! Understandably, a common question eye doctors get asked is “Can I prevent cataracts?” While there is no definitive way to prevent age-related cataracts, there are ways to reduce risk, and some of those have to do with sun exposure. Since July is UV Safety Awareness Month, it’s the perfect time to look at the connection between ultraviolet (UV) rays and the development of cataracts, and what you can do about it.
The role of UV light in cataract formation
It is well known that UV rays – invisible radiation that comes from the sun, tanning beds and sunlamps – can penetrate and alter cells in the skin causing damage. But studies show that there is also a connection between UV light and eye disease. In fact, too much UV exposure raises the risk of certain eye cancers, macular degeneration, and yes – cataracts!
Cataracts can take years to develop and every time you bask in the sun without eye protection, you increase your risk of the eye condition. The lens of the eye is primarily made up of water and proteins, making it transparent and able to transmit light and focus it on the retina in the back of the eye. Years of exposure to UV rays can cause the proteins in the lens to clump and thicken, which prevents light from passing through. These clumps create cloudy spots on the lens of the eye, known as cataracts.
How to safeguard your eyes from harmful UV rays
Many of us don’t think twice about protecting our skin with sunblock before heading outdoors, but our eyes need protection too. Here are 8 easy ways to protect your eyes from harmful UV rays:
- Not all sunglasses are the same. When selecting sunglasses, choose ones that provide 100% UV protection and block both UVA and UVB rays. It’s a mistake to rely on the darkness of the glasses. The shade is not related to blocking out UV rays. Also, choose a wrap-around style so that the sun’s rays cannot enter from the sides. Don’t just rely on contact lenses with UV protection, either. Always wear sunglasses.
- Wear a wide brimmed hat. Even if you are wearing sunglasses, the extra protection a wide-brimmed hat offers can make a real difference.
- Don’t be fooled by a cloudy day. It can be tempting to forgo sun protection on cloudy or hazy days, but the sun’s UV rays can pass right through the clouds. Always wear sunglasses when outdoors. Even on cloudy days.
- Try to avoid being in the sun when its rays are strongest. Midday to early afternoon is the time when the UV rays are the strongest because that’s when the rays have the shortest distance to travel to Earth. UV rays are stronger at higher altitudes and also when reflected off water, ice, or snow.
- Never look directly at the sun. It might sound like a myth, but it’s true! Staring directly at the sun can cause lasting damage. Not only can your cornea become sunburned, permanent damage to the retina is also possible.
- Avoid tanning beds. Tanning beds and sunlamps pose the same risk to your eyes and body as UV light from the sun. If you do use a tanning bed, be sure to protect your eyes.
- Wear sunglasses all year long. You might not think you need sunglasses in the winter, but you do. The sun’s rays are still strong, even when the temperatures drop.
- Get a comprehensive eye exam. Regular eye exams are important in preventing, diagnosing, and treating cataracts and other eye diseases. Most adults should visit their eye doctor every 1-2 years.
Ultraviolet rays can cause damage to all the structures to the eye and, in many cases, the damage is irreversible. When a cataract forms and grows large enough to interfere with everyday visual activities, the only treatment is cataract surgery – removing the natural lens of the eye and replacing it with an artificial lens known as an intraocular lens (IOL). Age-related cataracts are common and while there is currently no way to prevent them, reducing sun exposure and protecting your eyes can reduce your risk for developing cataracts.