Cataracts are the principal cause of blindness, and occur when the crystalline lens that brings light into focus on the back of the eye occludes, or clouds. Lens proteins degrade over time, so age is the usual cause, although this is accelerated by conditions such as diabetes or hypertension.
‘Every mammal that lives long enough will get a cataract,’ says Raja Das-Bhaumik. Sufferers find that sunlight or car headlights at night become more glaring; that their ability to appreciate colours and contrast becomes gradually limited, as if looking through a dirty contact lens — or at an all-encompassing impressionist painting.
The good news is that cataract surgery is the commonest — and safest — operation in the UK. The 320,000 procedures on the NHS per annum, all under local anaesthetic, involve making a nick in the eye to enter the capsule where the lens is stored, breaking up the faulty lens and extracting it, and inserting another lens — unifocal or multifocal, depending on your sight prescription — in its place. ‘The technology is good, and the eye heals quickly,’ says Simon Kelly. However, there are bureaucratic forces at play trying to restrict cataract surgery by raising the threshold of impairment so that early cataracts don’t get operated on, which Kelly deems a ‘short-sighted decision’.
The Royal National Institute for the Blind has found a ‘postcode lottery’ system exists in treatment provision. ‘When a cataract begins to affect a person’s everyday life, their sight will continue to deteriorate until it is removed. They will require surgery at some point, so not treating now only increases waiting lists in the future,’ says Clara Eaglen, RNIB Eye Health Manager. ‘If you feel that you are being unfairly denied a operation, then please get in contact with RNIB and we can help you.’