What you need to know about cataracts and your brain
This fuzzy vision condition doesn’t just impact your eyesight. New research suggests it may put your brain health at risk, too. Here’s why — and the simple fix that could save your smarts.
Blurry vision. Colors that aren’t as vibrant. Trouble seeing or driving at night. Problems reading. These are all symptoms of cataracts, a clouding of the lens of your eye that over time can impact your vision.
More than 24 million Americans age 40 and over have cataracts, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). Because cataracts naturally develop with age, the risk increases as you get older. By age 75, about half of all Americans have them.
While cataracts may make it tough to perform everyday tasks, this eye problem affects more than your vision. In fact, research links cataracts to cognitive conditions such as dementia and mental health disorders such as depression. (Use this free prescription medication coupon card to save up to 80% at the pharmacy.)
Here’s what you need to know to keep your sight — and mind — sharp.
The link between cataracts and dementia
To help maintain your brain power, take care of your eyes. That’s according to a large 2022 study in JAMA Internal Medicine. Researchers found that people 65 and older who underwent cataract surgery had a 29% lower risk of developing dementia over time than those who didn’t.
In fact, having cataracts was as big of a risk factor for dementia as carrying the genes for the condition. (Pop quiz: Can you recognize these 5 early signs of dementia?)
Few interventions other than healthy eating and exercise are thought to protect against dementia, says Cecilia S. Lee, MD. She’s an associate professor of ophthalmology at the University of Washington in Seattle and lead author of the study. That’s why this finding is so important.
Our brains constantly process the sounds we hear and the things we see. But when we face vision or hearing loss, our brains don’t get as much stimulus. Researchers think that’s one of the reasons cataracts may play such a strong role in dementia. And why corrective surgery may be so protective.
Better vision can also lead to a fuller, more active social life — another vital way to keep your brain buzzing.
How cataracts can impact your mental health
Does clear sight equal a happier mood? If you have depression, the answer may be yes.
Another recent study in Scientific Reports found a link between cataracts and depression. Over a nearly 8-year period, people with cataracts had a 78% higher chance of developing depression than those who didn’t have them.
The kicker? Those who got cataract surgery slashed those odds of developing depression by 25%.
Vision loss can make it difficult to enjoy your favorite activities and take care of yourself. Taking medication, cooking and running errands can become that much harder. And this can set you up for mood disorders such as depression.
Related reading: Is your diet making you depressed?
So should you have cataract surgery?
The only way to get rid of a cataract is through surgery, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI). During the procedure, doctors remove the clouded eye lens and replace it with a new, artificial one. It’s a safe and effective outpatient procedure. The NEI notes that 9 out of 10 people who get cataract surgery can see better afterward.
If you have a cataract, the best thing to do is talk with your eye doctor, says Dr. Lee. Discuss what will best suit you — and your sight.
If cataracts are impacting your day-to-day life or ability to care for yourself, then you may be a good candidate for surgery. But most people don’t need to rush to that step. You can do things on your own to help. These include using brighter lights at home and work and wearing anti-glare sunglasses.
Whether or not you choose to have cataract surgery, talk to your primary care doctor. Let them know what’s going on with your eye health. You may benefit from being screened for conditions such as depression.
What can I do to prevent cataracts?
Around age 40, the proteins in the lens of your eye start to break down. They can clump together, creating a cloudy area (or a cataract) on your lens.
But you can slow this breakdown with an overall healthy lifestyle. That includes protecting your eyes from the sun with sunglasses and a hat with a brim. (Need inspiration? Check out our favorite sun-safe products.) Quitting smoking and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables can help, too. (Here are 7 easy ways to make veggies taste better.)
Another key step? Keep up with your eye exams. The AAO recommends that you get a complete eye exam at age 40. Your eye doctor will check for any vision issues or things to keep tabs on as you age.
Around age 60, you’ll want to have a dilated eye exam every year or 2. This involves the doctor putting in eyedrops to widen your pupil and check for cataracts and other eye problems.
That said, if you suspect something is wrong with your vision, don’t wait until your next appointment. Dr. Lee says to call an ophthalmologist if you’re having trouble seeing while driving at night or notice halos around bright lights. This way, you can better understand what’s happening with your vision and protect your eye — and brain — health for the long haul.
Cataract statistics: American Academy of Ophthalmology
Study on cataract surgery and dementia: JAMA Internal Medicine (2022). “Association between cataract extraction and development of dementia”
Overview of cataracts: National Eye Institute
Study on cataracts and depression: Scientific Reports (2020). “Cataract and the increased risk of depression in general population: a 16-year nationwide population-based longitudinal study”
Eye exam basics: American Academy of Ophthalmology