A new study by JAMA Ophthalmology suggests that drivers who suffer from cataracts have a significantly lower risk of getting into traffic accidents if they have the cataracts removed through surgery.
First, what are cataracts? A cataract occurs when the clear lens of the eye, which helps us see by bending light rays that enter the eye, becomes cloudy.
The onset of the cloudiness occurs when proteins within the eye start to break down, in many cases because of age. On average, the eye begins to undergo changes at around the age of 40, when the breakdown of proteins begins. By age 60, there is usually some kind of cloudiness in the lenses. Vision problems may not immediately occur when the cloudiness begins, becoming a major issue only years later.
Other factors that could cause cataracts include a family history of cataracts, medical conditions such as diabetes, certain medications such as corticosteroids, excessive time in the sun without sunglasses to protect the eye from harmful UV rays, eye injuries, and radiation treatments on the upper part of the body.
When someone suffers from cataracts, they can face myriad vision problems:
- Blurry vision
- Seeing double images
- Extra sensitivity to light
- Poor night vision
- Needing extra sources of light to be able to read
- Seeing colors as faded out, or experiencing yellow-hued vision
The implications for driving are not difficult to imagine. Cataracts can have a significant negative impact on your ability to see objects such as road signs, stop lights, or road construction warnings. In addition, they make it more difficult to see smaller vehicles like motorcycles or bicycles.
The JAMA study surveyed over 559,000 patients who underwent cataract surgery between 2006 and 2016. The majority of the patients were elderly, with an average age of 76. Patients had been involved as drivers in a total of 6,482 serious accidents leading to emergency room treatment during the five years preceding their cataract surgeries.
In the three and a half years prior to the patients undergoing surgery, the ratio of patients to car accidents was 2.36 out of every 1,000 drivers. In the year after surgery, the ratio fell to 2.14 patients out of every 1,000 drivers. That doesn’t appear at first to be a large difference, but it comes out to a decrease of more than 9 percent.
“We know that reduced vision is a risk for driving. That is why the Department of Motor Vehicles or equivalent takes your driving license when your vision drops below a set level, which varies with country,” Dr. Justine Smith of Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia, told Reuters.
“The investigators were able to associate cataract surgery with decreased risk of a serious traffic accident. This tells you that if you or an elderly relative develop a cataract that affects the vision, one good reason to have the cataract operated is for road use safety,” Smith said.
One doctor who reviewed the study noted that not everyone with cataracts has trouble seeing well enough to drive safely, while there are also many drivers out there with cataracts who really shouldn’t be driving even if they still have their licenses.
“The difficulty comes with everybody in between where they have some cataract and it’s creating some effect on their vision but it’s not to the point where they can’t pass a driver’s vision test,” Dr. Kevin Miller of Stein Eye Institute and UCLA’s David Geffin School of Medicine told Reuters. “There are many, many people that fall into that gray zone.”
The bottom line is that the study shows that cataract surgery helps save more than vision; it can save lives.
If you suffer from cataracts or have a loved one who does, now might be the time for a procedure that can help assure the continuation of a safe and independent life. Contact the staff at OCLI today and set up appointment to see how surgery could be a viable vision-saving option.