All five of our senses are crucial to smoothly going about our day-to-day lives with as few mishaps as possible. However, our perceptive abilities tend to weaken and fade as we age. Sensory receptors that detect taste and smell slowly atrophy, sounds become muffled, and once-crisp 20/20 vision can turn blurry and distorted.

Many of these issues cannot be permanently repaired, but most elders are able to adapt by adopting new habits such as wearing a hearing aid or using reading glasses.

For individuals of all ages, healthy, functioning eyes are vital to leading safe, active, and stimulating lives. Unfortunately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that over 20 million Americans age 40 and over are affected by a potentially debilitating condition called cataracts. The good news is that most of these people are also candidates for a painless outpatient procedure that could easily improve their eyesight and quality of life.

Zooming in on the basics

Although there are many different classifications of cataracts, they all involve the same basic problem: the eye's ordinarily clear lens either becomes cloudy or discolored, preventing light from reaching the retina and producing a well-defined picture.

Cataracts can result in blurry vision, glare, yellow or brownish tint, halos around lights, and difficulty focusing, even while wearing glasses. Mild cataracts can have a significant impact on the ability to read, watch television, drive, and perceive certain colors, but severe cases may even pose a safety hazard and limit a person's independence.

Keeping an eye on eye health

Cataracts tend to worsen gradually over time, so it may not be readily apparent that the person is experiencing vision loss.

Tell-tale signs of visual impairment due to cataracts include frequent prescription changes for eyeglass or contact lenses, low night-vision, difficulty identifying colors like blue or purple, and frequent blinking in an attempt to refocus the eyes. If you observe any of these symptoms, it's important to make an appointment with an ophthalmologist to check for cataracts (or other eye problems).

Regardless of whether you or your loved one is experiencing issues with sight, keep in mind that the National Eye Institute recommends a routine eye examination at least once every two years for individuals ages 60 and over. Eye care professionals can diagnose cataracts and make recommendations on the potential need for surgery after a thorough evaluation that includes a dilated eye exam and a few painless measurements of the eye.

There are some medications and other eye conditions that can affect whether or not an individual is a candidate for cataract treatment. As with any doctor, it is imperative that you give the ophthalmologist an honest and comprehensive picture of you or your loved one's health, so they can effectively weigh the risks and benefits of any treatment options.

A clear resolution

The treatment for cataracts is a minimally invasive surgical procedure in which the cloudy lens is removed, via a small incision, and typically replaced with an artificial lens made of plastic. Understandably, many people find the idea of this surgery rather unnerving. Convincing a loved one to undergo corrective treatment can pose quite a challenge, especially if they are also suffering from dementia or cognitive impairment.

Aaron N. Waite, M.D., Director of Cornea, Cataract and Refractive Surgery and Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, is familiar with patients feeling apprehensive, but he stresses the safety and high success rate of this procedure. "It is normal to feel concerned about having surgery on the eyes. Fortunately, cataract surgery today is highly refined and very safe," he assures. "The benefits of cataract surgery oftentimes are not fully comprehended until after the surgery takes place and the substantial improvement in vision is noted."

These procedures are done one eye at a time, allowing patients a recovery period and the ability to decide whether or not to pursue treatment on the second eye, if necessary. "Most patients notice that their vision is brighter and clearer, colors are more vivid and it is easier to read, watch television and drive," Waite says.

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Sharper eyes, sharper mind?

If your loved one has both dementia and cataracts, they may have even more to gain from receiving corrective treatment for their eyes. "Patients with dementia may not be able to complain verbally about their decreased quality of vision from cataracts," Dr. Waite warns. "The cataracts can adversely affect the patients' ability to perform normal activities or care for themselves, and this can even lead to depression."

In addition, it has been suggested that improved eyesight could provide elders with increased sensory stimulation and potentially better cognitive function. "Cataract surgery can truly make a difference in the life of patients with dementia," says Waite. Even if they might be unable to vocalize their appreciation, this surgery has the potential to enhance their quality of life during a time when things are already too foggy.

A bright and focused future

It can be difficult or impossible for elders to effectively administer their own medications, especially eye drops prescribed to prevent infection following cataract surgery. Waite points out that "caregivers should expect to help with drops multiple times per day for two to four weeks following surgery." If your loved one is unable to follow this post-op protocol and you are unavailable to help, you may want to consider basic, medical home care for a few weeks.

If it turns out that your loved one is not a candidate for surgery, Waite recommends investigating low vision products and services that are available in your area. "There are other visual aids that can improve the quality of life including glasses, magnifiers, telescopic lenses, closed circuit televisions and other devices," he says.

Treating cataracts (or any other kind of visual impairment) can seem like a daunting endeavor, but in addition to recovering their vision, your loved one may also be able to regain some of their independence—and that will greatly benefit you both.