HYDERABAD: For many years now, experts have studied the negative effects of smoking on human health or the human body. In the course of this research, they made another surprising discovery: smoking also significantly increases a person’s risk of developing cataract. People who smoked one pack of cigarettes a day were nearly 46 percent more likely to develop cataract than people who did not smoke at all.
Smoking destroys the eye’s natural protection, one cigarette at a time. Chemicals called ‘free radicals’ are present in cigarette smoke. They are also naturally released by the body during metabolism. The body, however, uses antioxidants to protect its cells, including those in the eye, from damage caused by these free radicals. Research shows that smokers have lower levels of antioxidants in their blood as compared to non-smokers. Smoking also releases harmful compounds such as nicotine and hydrogen cyanide into the blood that travel to the eyes and cause irritation or damage. Over time these conditions work together to destroy the eye’s natural proteins which leads to clouding of the eye lens. This ‘clouding’ is known as a cataract. Cataracts left untreated for a prolonged period can lead to permanent blindness.
Recent research also shows that Indians develop cataract earlier than their Western counterparts. There is evidence that links a higher predisposition to diabetes in Indians and higher sun exposure, to an increased risk of cataract. Other reasons for this could be a deteriorating lifestyle and increasing stress levels. Under these circumstances, smoking just adds to the risk burden and speeds up the cataract development process.
The signs are not always obvious. Cataract as a condition develops slowly and almost unobtrusively. This slow and gradual development makes its diagnosis more challenging. The signs of cataract are not specific, so people often assume that other factors are causing the deterioration in their vision and they postpone a specific check for cataract.
Tell-tale signs of cataract that you should watch out for:
Difficulty in seeing things clearly, as if you are viewing things looking through a foggy glass or a waterfall
Struggling to read, drive a car or perform simple every day activities
Sudden light sensitivity, such as excessive squinting in sunlight or other bright lights
Is your risk lower if you quit smoking?
Yes, but I must point out here that people who smoke and then quit are still at a higher risk of developing cataract than people who have never smoked at all. Quitting smoking can lower your risk, although it could be several decades before this risk reduces significantly. In addition to cataract, smoking also increases a person’s risk of other eye diseases such as dry eye, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy.
Improvements in treatment
Recent advancements in surgery and technology have made cataract treatment quicker, safer and more effective. But it is the improvement in intraocular lenses that now makes life very comfortable after cataract surgery. We now have multiple lens options such as monofocals, multifocals and advanced versions of IOLs (intraocular lenses) called Extended Range of Vision (ERV) IOLs. When implanted after cataract surgery, they enable sharp and clear vision at near, far and intermediate distances. Another benefit of these modern lenses is that they also reduce the need for corrective eyewear after surgery.
(The doctor is Chief Refractive & Cataract Surgeon, Maxivision Super Speciality Eye Hospital, Hyderabad)