Cataracts have been the leading cause of blindness all throughout history.
In all that time, treatment for cataracts has unsurprisingly come a long way. Over 20 million American adults over the age of 40 will develop cataracts, and half will have them by age 80 — and that’s just Americans!
What Is a Cataract?
When the eye is healthy, the lens is filled with transparent proteins. Over the years, those proteins can begin to clump together until they become opaque, leading to symptoms like light sensitivity, clouded or dim vision, glare, halos around lights, double vision in one eye, fading colors, poor night vision, and more frequent prescription changes. Eventually they can result in total blindness.
Ancient Cataract Treatment
Attempted cataract removal goes back at least as far as 600 BC, which makes it one of the first ailments people tried to treat surgically. In those times, they used a method called “couching,” which entailed smacking the eye with a blunt object until the lens dislodged. Having no lens at all was a little better than total blindness, but it did leave the patient completely unable to focus their vision. It’s not a technique we recommend.
A slight improvement was made to the couching method when they upgraded from blunt instruments to sharp ones, but not much else changed for thousands of years. Then, in 1747, Jaques Daviel, a French surgeon, successfully removed a cataract without dislodging the lens. This was a serious advancement to cataract treatment, particularly when combined with topical anesthesia. But there still wasn’t a way to replace an opaque lens with a clear one.
History’s Most Famous Cataract Surgery Patient
Cataracts would make anyone’s life more difficult, but perhaps few would struggle with them as much as someone who paints for a living. Claude Monet, perhaps the most famous of all the French Impressionists, developed cataracts starting in his mid-fifties. You can observe how his vision deteriorated in his paintings during that period, with the colors growing increasingly muddy.
Some of his fellow artists had already had bad experiences with cataract surgery, so Monet was reluctant to risk it and relied on eye drops for a while. By 1923, the cataracts were bad enough that he was willing to get surgery on one eye. He was a notoriously uncooperative patient, but between surgery and thick new glasses, his vision was greatly improved for the next few years, and his paintings went back to the way they looked before his vision began to fail.
Cataract Surgery in the 21st Century
If Monet was alive today and struggling with cataracts, he wouldn’t be so worried to get cataract surgery. The success rate is as high as 99%, and advancements with silicone and plastics eliminate the need for bulky glasses because we can actually replace the clouded lens inside the eye with a clear one! Every year, three million Americans undergo cataract surgery, after which they enjoy excellent vision. Some even return to 20/20 vision after decades of needing glasses!
Cataracts: The Most Reversible Cause of Blindness
If you’ve noticed some of the symptoms of cataracts that we described above, we urge you to schedule an eye exam. In this day and age, no one should live with vision loss due to cataracts. Cataract surgery is incredibly safe and routine to treat.