Five fascinating facts about cataracts

10 July 23

written by:

Sarah Kidner

(more articles)

Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide. Alongside age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma, they will see the number of people living with eye conditions jump to 3.5 million by 2050 as the population ages. Here, we present five facts you may not know.

1. A leading cause of blindness worldwide

Cataract is the leading cause of blindness worldwide and one of the most performed procedures in the UK. There is a backlog of cataract procedures due to workforce shortages, according to the RCOphth 2022 Census Report. It is one of many reasons that Fight for Sight / Vision Foundation is backing calls for a National Eye Health Care Plan in England.

2. Egyptians treated cataracts 400 years ago

The first recorded treatment for cataracts was performed some 4000 years ago by the Egyptians. It is perhaps fitting that there is a Cataract Hotel in Aswan on the River Nile although the name “cataract” here is derived from the Greek to mean waterfall. The light scattered by the white water of the rapids at Aswan is similar in principle to lens cataracts, making them appear white.

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3. The first human disease categorised as “autosomal dominant”

Cataracts were the first human disease to be classified as autosomal dominant in humans. So, an affected individual has a 50% chance of passing the mutated gene to each of their children. Lifestyle factors also play a significant role in whether people develop cataracts.

4. Artists affected by cataracts

Cataracts are progressive and get bigger and denser so that more parts of the lens appear cloudy.

The lens may also turn yellow, brown or black, making it difficult for a person to distinguish colours. Some famous artists, including Turner and Monet, experienced this, as evidenced in their later works.

In Turner’s case, people believe that cataracts account for his increasingly non-representational style and an intense use of yellow. Turner described yellow as light and blue as darkness.

5. Cataract surgery inspired by observations of WWII fighter pilots

Today, Cataract surgery is a relatively straightforward procedure thanks to the work of ophthalmologist Sir Harald Ridley. He observed that when splinters of acrylic shards became embedded in the lens of WWII fighter pilots, they’d didn’t trigger inflammatory rejection in the same way that glass did.

This led him to propose the use of artificial lenses to treat cataracts. Ridley proposed that a plastic lens implant could replace the cataract-containing lens.

Cataract surgery is the most common operation in the Western world; in the UK alone, approximately 400,000 procedures are carried out each year.