It’s clear to see: Cataract surgery can extend and improve women’s lives (and men’s too)

cataract-300x240Cataract operations, performed on more than 3 million Americans each year, not only may be the most common surgeries in the nation—they also may be life prolonging, especially for older women.

A 20-year study—published in JAMA Ophthalmology— of more than 74,000 women who were 65 and older and who had the all too common clouding of and discoloration of the eye lens found a 60 percent lower risk of death among the 41,735 women who had their cataracts removed, the New York Times has reported.

Further, older women who had cataract surgeries not only lived longer but better, researchers said. As the New York Times has reported:

The women in the study who underwent cataract surgery lived longer even though, over all, they were sicker to begin with — as a group, they had more heart attacks, chronic pulmonary disease, peptic ulcers and glaucoma than those who did not have surgery. … [But] those who had cataract surgery subsequently had reduced risks of death from cardiovascular, pulmonary, neurological and infectious diseases, as well as cancer and accidents.

Anne L. Coleman, an ophthalmologist at the Stein Eye Institute of the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California Los Angeles, told the newspaper that, when patients’ vision improves, “they can also move more and get more exercise. They can see their pills better and may be more likely to take them and take the right ones. The surgery also improves visual contrast, which decreases the risk of accidental deaths from falls or driving. It’s important to get the best vision a person can have.”

By the way, earlier research had shown these eye operations also lower men’s mortality risks.

The newspaper says that cataracts “typically form gradually with age, and anyone who lives long enough is likely to develop them. They are the most frequent cause of vision loss in people over 40. Common risk factors include exposure to ultraviolet radiation (i.e., sunlight), smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, prolonged use of corticosteroids, extreme nearsightedness and family history.

Individuals can protect themselves from cataracts by wearing sunglasses that block 100 percent of UV rays and a hat, the New York Times reported. They can support their vision with vitamin E-rich foods like spinach, almonds, sunflower seeds and sweet potatoes. They also may want to add to their diets items  abundant with the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin (found in kale, spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables), and omega-3 fatty acids (spinach and oily fish like mackerel, salmon and sardines).

Cataract surgery—which once took hours, required general anesthesia, and hospitalization—has advanced so that it can be done on an outpatient basis, relatively quickly, easily, and with minor inconvenience. Patients still may experience discomfort and must curtail their activities, including driving and strenuous exercise after the surgeries. They have high success rates, and often result in not only greater vision clarity but acuity.

In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, including in seemingly routine procedures like cataract operations. But, to be clear, this is still a surgery, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Although Medicare typically covers the $3,500 or so cost per eye, some seniors still may balk at the expense, inconvenience, and risk of cataract surgeries.

Families, friends, and loved ones should understand that too many retirees, baby boomers, have saved too little and spent too much in their lifetimes. They may enter their “golden years” with far fewer resources than they will need, especially for medical services. Or, they may be reluctant, due to excess frugality, to spend for goods and services that could boost the quality and length of their lives. Jane Bryant Quinn, the noted financial columnist, has written in the December AARP Bulletin, for example, that it doesn’t make total sense for an older woman with ample finances to scrimp and deny herself  hearing aids, if doing so leaves her deaf and isolated from friends and family.

It’s a quandary. Experts and research have shown that seniors live longer, fuller lives if they deal not only with their major, chronic health conditions but also with matters like their vision and hearing, as well as their oral health—the gums, teeth, and tongues that let them taste, digest, and enjoy good food.

By the way, knowing how profound the effects of medical services and care can be on seniors’ longevity and quality of life, does it make any more sense that Republicans in Washington not only have slashed at Medicaid and Medicare in the pending changes in the U.S. tax code but that they’re talking about making more and bigger cuts in the months ahead to these programs and Social Security?

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