To examine changes in indications for cataract surgery which have contributed to the increasing rate of cataract extractions, we compared preoperative characteristics of 265 patients who had undergone surgery in 1988 with a similar number who had undergone surgery by the same four ophthalmologists in 1974 and 1982. Between 1974 and 1988 the number of extractions performed annually by two high-referral hospital-based surgeons rose by 68%. Over 90% of these procedures in 1974 were intracapsular extractions; in 1988, 90% were extracapsular extractions with intraocular lenses. In 1988, preoperative visual acuity was better in both the study eyes and the fellow eyes, the proportion of those with acuities better than 20/60 having risen from 10% to 21%, and from 49% to 67%, respectively. The proportion of patients waiting more than 2 years for surgery on the second eye doubled between 1974 and 1988. These changes, already evident by 1982 for the hospital-based surgeons, became characteristic of the community-based surgeons' practices as well between 1982 and 1988.