Change in Cataract Prevalence for People Age 40 and Older

Cataract is a clouding of the eye's naturally clear lens. Most cataracts appear with advancing age. The exact cause of cataract is unclear, but it may be the result of a lifetime of exposure to ultraviolet radiation contained in sunlight, or may be related to other lifestyle factors such as cigarette smoking, diet and alcohol consumption.

Cataract can also occur at any age as a result of other causes such as eye injury, exposure to toxic substances or radiation, or as a result of other diseases such as diabetes.

Congenital cataracts may even be present at birth due to genetic defects or developmental problems. Cataracts in infants may also result from exposure to diseases such as rubella during pregnancy.

According to the World Health Organization, cataract is the leading cause of blindness in the world. In the United States, cataract is sometimes considered a conquered disease because treatment is widely available that can eliminate vision loss due to the disease. However, cataract still accounts for a significant amount of vision impairment in the U.S., particularly in older people who may have difficulty accessing appropriate eye care due to cost, availability or other barriers.

Treatment of cataract involves removal of the clouded natural lens. The lens is usually replaced with an artificial intraocular lens (IOL) implant. Cataract removal is now one of the most commonly performed surgical procedures with more than a million such surgeries performed each year.

Surgery is not truly a cure for cataract, however, and its success in controlling vision loss comes with a price. It is estimated that the direct annual medical costs for outpatient, inpatient and prescription drug services related to the treatment of cataract total $6.8 billion.

Ongoing research into the normal healthy functioning of the eye's lens may help us better understand the causes of cataract and how they might be prevented. Even partial achievement of this goal might save hundreds of millions of dollars in the annual costs of treating cataract. Because of the variety of opacifications possible, cases of cataract can be defined by a number of classification schemes. The cases included in the Vision Problems in the U.S. prevalence statistics include cortical cataract affecting 25% or more of the lens, posterior sub-capsular cataract 1mm or larger, and nuclear cataract greater than or equal to the next-to-the-highest grade in the grading system used (generally NII or NIII in the LOCS II grading system).

Cataract affects over 24.4 million Americans age 40 and older, or about one in every six people in this age range. By age 80, more than half of all Americans have cataract. Cataract is slightly more common in women than in men.