By Dr. Mark Siegel
Women with cataracts who get surgery to treat the eye problem may be less likely to die prematurely than those who don’t get the operations, a recent U.S. study suggests.
Researchers examined data on 74,044 women with cataracts, including 41,735 who underwent cataract surgery. Compared to women who didn’t get operations, those who did were 60 percent less likely to die from all causes during the study period.
The results of this study suggest that cataract surgery may have benefits beyond improving vision even in patients who are elderly or sick. Cataracts often develop with age, and by age 80 roughly half of Americans either have cataracts or have had cataract surgery, according to the National Eye Institute.
When people have a cataract, the lens in the eye becomes cloudy and things look blurry or less colorful than they should. During cataract surgery, the damaged lens is removed and replaced with an artificial lens that helps restore clear vision.
Women in the current study were 71 years old, on average, and were part of the Women’s Health Initiative, a study that has been running for more than two decades and collects information on demographics, medical conditions and lifestyle habits.
From 1993 to 2013, a total of 6,878 women who had cataract surgery died, as did 6,123 women with cataracts who didn’t get the procedure.
This translates into a mortality rate from all causes of 1.5 deaths per 100 women each year in the surgery group and 2.6 deaths per 100 women each year in the other group, researchers report in JAMA Ophthalmology.
With surgery, women also had a 37 percent to 69 percent reduced risk of death due to pulmonary, accidental, infectious, neurologic and vascular diseases, and cancer, the study also found.
The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how cataract surgery might help people live longer. It’s possible that other factors influence both risk of death and likelihood of getting cataract surgery, for example.
We cannot say for certain if people with cataracts who pass away are dying from factors specifically related to their vision loss (e.g. a fatal car accident from not being able to see well), but we believe people with decreased vision have decreased overall functioning with daily activities such as exercising, taking medicine and going to doctor appointments, all of which may be related to overall lifespan.
Another limitation of the study is that because it only included women, it’s not clear how surgery would influence survival odds for men. However, several previous studies have linked cataract surgery to lower odds of premature death for both men and women.
Cataracts can’t be prevented, but the study results do suggest that there are benefits to treating them. This research argues for ready access to cataract surgery for older women. In a similar vein, this research argues for regular eye checks for older people.
Dr. Mark Siegel is the medical director at Sea Island Ophthalmology at 111 High Tide Drive (off Midtown Drive near Low Country Medical Group). Visit www.seaislandophthalmology.com.