Can Cataracts Be Prevented?

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The statistics show that more than 20.5 million Americans are currently affected by cataracts. By the year 2020, it has been predicted that the number will skyrocket to 30.1 million as the age of the baby boomers matures.

So, what can be done to prevent the development of cataracts?

For starters, staying healthy and avoiding lifestyle habits that increase the risk of diabetes will subsequently decrease the risk of developing cataracts. Avoid environmental exposures which have been associated with cataracts formation such as prolonged use of corticosteroids, smoking and over-use of alcohol.

To reduce the risk of radiation cataracts, wear sunglasses outside to protect the eyes from UV exposure. Choose sunglasses and eyeglasses which block out the harmful rays of the sun. This is especially true for children who do not understand the affect that over exposure to rays at a young age can have on their future eyesight. The Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago now encourages parents to remind their children to wear sunglasses when they will be outdoors for longer than 20 minutes, especially if that time period falls during the hours of 10:00 am and 3:00 pm when the sun's rays are the strongest.

Pregnant females should be aware that if they contract German measles, also known as rubella, during pregnancy there is an increased risk of the child developing cataracts soon after birth. Therefore, some professionals recommend that women planning on having a baby ask their doctor for a rubella shot at least three months before becoming pregnant. This is an easy, but effective way to prevent cataracts in small children.

A recent study published in the April 2004 edition of Trends in Molecular Medicine, suggest that calpain inhibitors may slow or even prevent the formation of age-associated cataracts. Calpains have been found to possibly be a major player in cataracts development by breaking down the essential proteins of the lens if left unchecked or unregulated. The possibility of a drug introduction which regulates or inhibits the activity of calpains could greatly decrease the risk of age-associated cataracts. 1

In 2000, an article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition show two Harvard performed studies which claim that when an individual's diet is high in lutein and zeaxanthin rich foods there is a 19 to 22 percent less chance of developing age-related cataracts than those who do not incorporate these foods into their diets in high quantities. Lutein and Zeaxanthin are phytochemicals, a naturally occurring group of biochemicals that are classified within the carotenoid class of molecules. Phytochemicals give plants their color, flavor, smell and texture. 2

Foods which are high in lutein and zeaxanthin include green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, collard greens, kale, mustard greens and peppers. Winter squash and eggs have also been found to contain high levels of these important cataracts preventing molecules. 2, 7 In fact, one study which compared the bioavailability of lutein in eggs, spinach and lutein supplements found that the highest rate of lutein which entered the bloodstream came after the consumption of eggs. 9 Researchers at Ohio State University have found evidence that lutein and zeaxanthin actually function to protect the eyes from the harmful effects of UV radiation, one of the risk factors associated with an increased chance of developing cataracts. 3

A subsequent study published in 2005, also in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, states that eating a high quantity of fruits and vegetables may aid in the prevention of cataracts development due to the high antioxidant content found in these foods. 4

Virender Sodhi, a Medical Doctor and practicing Naturopathic doctor in Bellevue, Washington recommends a diet high in antioxidants both from food and supplemental sources to ward off the formation of cataracts. His suggestions include taking 600-800 IU of natural vitamin E, in the d-alpha tocopherol form, along with 1500 mg of vitamin C, 200 mcg of selenium and 25,000 IU of natural carotenoids daily. The carotenoids should be divided into three doses to be taken with meals. If the high dosage of Vitamin C causes loose stools, decrease the dosage. Add at least two servings of vegetables and fruits each day with the colors dark red, orange, yellow, blue and purple. With these suggestions, the diet will be very high in antioxidants, helping the body to fight off free radical damage, which can result in cataracts later in life. 5

For those individuals who have diabetes, the risk of cataracts occurrence increases tremendously as do other eye related problems such as glaucoma. A study published in 2003 recommends several supplements which may help to prevent or at least delay the formation of cataracts in diabetics. After studying rabbit lenses in culture and the damaging effect that high blood sugar has on them, researchers concluded that supplementation with Vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine) and N-acetylcysteine (NAC), may help to decrease the oxidation of proteins; a step which causes the formation of free radicals and the increase in cataracts formation risk. 6

In 2003, the costs associated with cataracts related health care, disability and surgery totaled $6 billion dollars worldwide annually. 9 As this number will only increase as the world's baby boomers hit the age of cataracts diagnosis, the implementation and subsequent education regarding preventative measures becomes ever more important.