Why are women at higher risk of developing cataracts?

05 April 2022

Author: Kate Green

womens eye health

Reasons for high cataract risk

 

April is Women’s Eye Health and Safety Month, making it the perfect opportunity to discuss women’s eye health, as well as eye conditions which they are more likely to develop than men. We have written previously on this blog about eye diseases which women may find themselves more likely to develop, but today we’re looking specifically at cataracts and why women are more likely to experience them.

 

Even though women make up 49.6% of the world’s population, they suffer with 66% of blindness and visual impairments globally. One of the most commonly touted explanations for this is that women have a longer life expectancy than men. As lots of degenerative eye diseases occur as a result of ageing, it gives them more time to develop them in old age. Some of the eye conditions that fall into this bracket are cataracts, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration.

 

A second reason that women might be more susceptible to developing a range of degenerative eye diseases is down to hormonal changes. Times in a woman’s life that her hormones might change include pregnancy, breastfeeding and the menopause which can lead to dry eye, uveitis, cataracts, and even a change in prescription. It is particularly around these milestones that women should monitor changes in their vision and seek treatment if and when necessary.

 

What is a cataract?

 

A cataract forms when proteins in the eye begin to break down and clump together, impairing your vision. This breaking down process occurs naturally with age but it leads to cloudy vision which can only be rectified with cataract surgery. Some symptoms of cataracts which you might notice in the early stages of their development are:

  • Faded colour vision
  • Light sensitivity
  • Cloudy or blurred vision
  • Worsening night vision
  • Halos around bright lights

 

As the eye’s natural lens is affected by the cataract, this is the part which needs to be extracted during surgery, before being replaced by a clear artificial lens. Sometimes, these artificial lenses have vision-correction properties, which you can read more about here. Over 330,000 cataract surgery procedures carried out in England each year, with more than half of people aged 80+ having had a cataract or cataract surgery.

 

Blindness caused by cataracts is more common in women than in men; in fact, women are 65% more likely to be cataract blind, particularly in areas where cataract surgery isn’t accessible.

 

Do oestrogen levels affect the development of cataracts?

 

It has been found that the decline of oestrogen that women experience during the menopause can lead to an increased risk of cataracts. This is likely to be down to the withdrawal of oestrogen from the body, rather than simply a lower concentration of the hormone. Further to this, oestrogen is thought to exert several anti-ageing effects which lead to a longer lifespan in women. This longer lifespan, as previously mentioned, can come with a higher risk of cataracts which develop further as the years go by, creating a vicious cycle of sorts. This would go some way to explaining why women make up 61% of cataract patients.

 

Effects of cancer treatment on cataract formation

 

The National Eye Institute says that women are “more likely to undergo certain cancer treatments that may affect vision”, contributing to their greater risk of developing eye disorders than men. Examples given include cataract formation, bleeding in the eye, dry eyes, itchy eyes, and light sensitivity. Treatments such as chemotherapy can cause these conditions but, thankfully, cataracts are treatable and dry, itchy eyes can also be managed. Unfortunately, drugs used to combat breast cancer have been found to increase a woman’s risk of glaucoma, causing a build-up of pressure in the eye.

 

How to reduce your risk of cataracts

 

As cataracts are an age-related condition, they can’t as such be prevented. However, to minimise your risk of developing cataracts, you can cut back on smoking and drinking, as well as eat a diet rich in vitamins A, C and E. These steps are all proven to delay the onset of cataract formation and slow the progression of the condition. You should also attend eye tests regularly (every two years) in order to monitor any changes in your eyes and to help you to seek treatment as soon as possible, should you require it.


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