Cataracts are a problem in which the eye’s lens is clouded, causing blurred, dimmed or dulled vision Cataracts typically affect people over 40. But while older people make up the highest cataract case numbers, younger adults and even children can be affected by the condition.

Cataracts are the world’s leading cause of blindness, as well as one of the leading causes of blindness in Australia. Ophthalmologists in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and beyond treat early onset cataracts so that they don’t develop over time. So what causes early onset cataracts? And how can they be treated so that they don’t develop into a more worrying problem?

What are cataracts?

In order to understand early onset cataracts, it’s important to know what exactly a cataract is. Cataracts are a condition that impacts the eye’s normally transparent lens, located behind the coloured iris and the pupil. Cataracts begin to cloud the lens and can inhibit the light passing through to the eye’s retina. Therefore, cataract-inhibited vision is typically like looking into an area of thick fog or a smoke-filled room.

Cataracts don’t usually cause any pain, however, if the cataract goes untreated for too long, they may cause light sensitivity and severe pain. Cataracts in their early stages may not severely impact your vision. However, if the cataract is allowed to progress, it will eventually inhibit your daily vision.

What causes cataracts?

Cataracts develop for a number of reasons, but they are typically caused by ageing. As we get older, our natural arrangement of proteins in the lens begins to deteriorate. Eventually, the proteins begin to group together, clouding the lens and creating the cataract. Other factors include smoking, radiation therapy, steroid use, ultraviolet (UV) rays, genetic conditions, eye injury and diabetes. Unfortunately, children can also develop cataracts for some of these reasons.

Types of cataracts

There are different types of cataracts that affect the eyes in different ways. This includes:

Nuclear Sclerotic: These cataracts slowly form in the center of the eye’s lens. They cause the lens to harden and become opaque.
Cortical: These cataracts occur when the lens fibers around the lens nucleus become opaque. This creates a “spoke-like” appearance. Cortical cataracts can develop over months or years.
Posterior Subcapsular: This is a cataract located directly under the lens capsule. They tend to develop in younger patients and may progress at a more rapid rate rate than a nuclear sclerotic cataract.

Other types of cataracts that can develop in younger people include:

Diabetic “Snowflake”: These are cataracts caused by uncontrolled levels of blood sugar that are converted into sorbitol. The sorbitol causes snowflake appearances or grayish-white starburst. They affect lens clarity.
Traumatic: These are caused by blunt force trauma or penetration of the eye.
Congenital: These are found in babies at birth. They are typically inherited or part of an underlying system disease.

Symptoms of early onset cataracts

People with a family history of cataracts are at higher risk of developing the condition. Therefore, it is important to tell your eye doctor if there is a history of cataracts or vision problems in your family. If you have a yearly eye checkup, this is a good time to tell your doctor if your vision has changed in any way.

You should consult your eye doctor if you are experiencing any of the following:

Blurred vision
Nighttime glare
Double vision
The need for extra light when reading
A grayish discoloration in the pupil.

How are cataracts treated?

Cataracts can be easily treated when caught early. Ophthalmologists provide painless treatment where the cloudy lens is removed and replaced with a custom made implantable lens. This treatment doesn’t take long – patients typically return home within a few hours of arriving at the clinic.