Some cases of cataracts, known as congenital cataracts, are inherited and may develop in babies or young children. However, most cataract cases relate to the natural process of aging and occur in older adults. Although, genetics may also play a role in age-related cataracts.

A girl sitting on her mother's lap looking at the cameraShare on Pinterest
FG Trade/Getty Images

Cataracts become more common as people age. The National Eye Institute estimates that more than half of Americans over the age of 80 years have or have had cataracts.

The organization states that most cases of cataracts are due to normal aging processes, but they can also occur after an injury or due to other conditions, such as glaucoma. However, cataracts can also be genetic.

This article discusses whether cataracts are hereditary, inherited conditions and risk factors for cataracts, and methods of preventing the condition.

Aging is the most common cause of cataracts. The condition is typically due to cumulative, lifelong changes in the eye that manifest after age 40 years.

However, cataracts are also a genetic disease. There has been much research into the molecular genetic basis of cataracts. To date, researchers have identified 115 genes and 38 disease-causing genes that are associated with cataract formation.

People with family members who have cataracts are more likely to develop the condition, which suggests that genes shared within families are a possible cause of the disease.

For example, some babies are born with congenital cataracts, and the condition can also develop during childhood.

However, congenital cataracts are rare. According to older research from 2013, roughly 72 in 100,000 children experience congenital cataracts. These cataracts may occur as isolated defects or associate with other anomalies. Of these congenital cases, about 8–25% are hereditary, meaning that parents pass the condition down to their children.

Even in age-related cataracts, genetics likely plays a role in the condition. Age-related cataracts are due to a combination of environmental damage that occurs over time and, possibly, the presence of certain genetic mutations. For example, a genetic mutation could influence the shape of the eye’s lens, making it more vulnerable to clouding.

Cataracts can develop on their own or with other inherited conditions.

For example, there is a link between cataracts and diabetes. People with diabetes have high blood sugar levels that can damage the body over time. High blood sugar levels can cause changes in the eye’s lens structure that increase the risk of cataracts.

People with diabetes have a higher risk of cataracts depending on how long they have had the condition, how frequently blood sugar levels are high, and whether macular edema is present. This is where diabetes causes damage to small blood vessels in the retina, causing leakage of blood and fluid that results in profound vision loss.

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, other reasons someone might develop cataracts include:

  • smoking
  • eye injuries or surgery
  • radiation treatments on the upper body
  • excessive sun exposure
  • certain medications, such as corticosteroids

More research is needed to identify the genetic variations associated with a high risk of developing cataracts. This may help scientists develop new prevention strategies for cataracts.

There is currently no treatment for preventing or slowing the progression of cataracts. Surgery is the only cure for cataracts.

However, some steps might reduce the risk of cataracts or delay their onset, including:

  • quitting smoking
  • reducing sun exposure
  • wearing UV-blocking sunglasses
  • protecting the eyes from injury, such as wearing protective goggles when using power tools
  • eating a balanced diet

Below are some frequently asked questions about cataracts.

What age are people affected by cataracts?

The American Academy of Ophthalmology states that cataracts typically affect people over age 40 years. Changes in the eye after 40 years can lead to developing cataracts. People over 60 years will typically see some clouding in their lenses.

Do cataracts run in the family?

Yes, people who have relatives with cataracts are more likely to develop the condition. Some people may inherit diseases that increase the risk of cataracts, such as type 1 diabetes.

What are the first signs of cataracts?

The first signs of cataracts may be mild. Some people will experience a faint blurring of their vision or other symptoms, such as difficulty seeing at night or light sensitivity. Over time, these symptoms will become more obvious and start affecting daily activities.

Cataracts are an eye condition that causes lens clouding that affects vision. Cataracts can be hereditary, as parents may pass down genetic mutations that cause the disease. However, most cases of cataracts are due to the cumulative effects of lifelong environmental exposures and aging.

Cataract surgery is an effective and safe treatment for the condition. People may also try self-help strategies to postpone cataract surgery, such as wearing UV-blocking sunglasses and making lifestyle changes.