Diabetes affects people of all ages, races and genders. An estimated 25.8 million Americans or 8.3 percent of the population suffer from the disease, according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2011. In fact, diabetic eye disease is the leading cause of new cases of blindness among adults in the North America.
If you or someone you care for has diabetes, here are 6 things you need to know about how it impacts eyes and vision.
What is diabetic eye disease?
Diabetic eye disease is most commonly associated with diabetic retinopathy, which is characterized by damage to the blood vessels of the retina and can lead to blindness. According to the National Eye Institute, it can also cause premature cataracts and glaucoma.
How does it impact vision?
In diabetic retinopathy, the small blood vessels that nourish the retina at the back of the eye become weak as a result of fluctuating sugar levels in the bloodstream. This causes bleeding at the back of the eye, reduced circulation and less oxygen and nutrients reaching the retina. As a result, new fragile blood vessels are produced to compensate. However, the abnormal blood vessels can start leaking fluid and small amounts of blood into the retina, causing vision loss. In the worst cases, the retina can scar or detach, causing permanent vision loss.
What are the symptoms?
At first, someone with diabetic retinopathy may not experience any noticeable symptoms. That is why early detection is crucial and diabetics should have a dilated eye exam at least once a year to screen for diabetic retinopathy. In most cases, by the time you realize something is wrong, the disease is so far advanced that lost vision can't be restored.
In its advanced stage symptoms may include:
- Fluctuating vision
- Eye floaters and spots
- The development of a shadow in your field of view
- Blurry vision, or double vision
Who is at risk?
Anyone who has diabetes type 1 or type 2 has a greater chance of developing vision loss. Even gestational diabetes and pre-diabetes increase the risk of diabetic eye disease. An estimated 40 to 45 percent of Americans diagnosed with diabetes have some degree of diabetic retinopathy, according to the NEI. That is why anyone with diabetes should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year. The longer you have diabetes, the more likely it is to have an effect on your vision.
Race and family history can also put you at risk for the disease. If you are of Hispanic, African, Asian, Pacific Island, or Native American descent, you are more likely to develop diabetes. Lifestyle - including your weight, diet and how active you are - also plays a role in the development and management of diabetes, as well as its effect on the eyes.
How is diabetic eye disease treated?
There are effective medical treatments, including injections into the eye to prevent leaking blood vessels and laser treatment to prevent and reduce vision loss as a result of diabetes, but early detection and treatment are vital!
What steps can I take to reduce diabetes related vision loss?
Make sure to keep your blood sugar levels under control and monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol. Speak to your doctor about what your target goals should be to prevent further deterioration. Often, when diabetes causes damage to the eyes, it is also an indication of the damage occurring in the kidneys and other areas in the body with small nerves and blood vessels, too. Exercise, maintain a healthy diet and keep your cholesterol levels low. Schedule eye exams yearly or as often as your eye doctor and medical doctor advise.
Knowing the risks and symptoms of diabetic retinopathy is not enough. If you or a loved one has diabetes, don’t take chances. The only real way to safeguard your vision is by making your eye health a priority.