Diabetes and the Eye

November is National Diabetes Awareness Month, so let’s take this opportunity to learn more about how diabetes can affect your vision and eye health. In the United States alone, approximately 29 million people have been diagnosed with some form of diabetes, making it one of the most common diseases in this country. Diabetes is a condition in which your blood sugar levels are too high. This increase causes damage throughout your body, but specifically affects your kidneys, lungs, and eyes.

Diabetes is a dangerous condition that can destroy your blood vessels without causing any symptoms. Thankfully, the eye is the only place where your doctors can view your blood vessels without cutting into your skin! This is why it is important to have a comprehensive eye exam with dilation done yearly, especially if you have been diagnosed with diabetes.

Courtesy of Alisha Vargas on Flickr

Courtesy of Alisha Vargas on Flickr

Vision Loss and Diabetes

During your dilated eye exam, your optometrist will look for signs of diabetic retinopathy and macular edema. These are the two main causes of vision loss with diabetes. Diabetic retinopathy ranges in severity from non-proliferative, meaning no new blood vessel growth in the retina, to proliferative, meaning new blood vessels have formed. New blood vessels form in order to maintain the supply of oxygen and nutrients to areas of the retina that have been damaged by high blood sugar levels. These new blood vessels are weak and can easily break and start bleeding. Your optometrist will look for bleeding or new blood vessel growth in your retina. They will also look for signs of macular edema, or swelling of the macula, which is responsible for your best central vision. It is important to remember that these conditions may not always impair your vision or cause you to experience any visual symptoms.

Surprisingly, the number one risk factor for diabetic damage to the eye is the duration of the disease. Eighty percent of people who have had diabetes for 15 years or longer have damage to their retinas. The longer you have been diagnosed with diabetes, the greater your risk for developing retinopathy or any subsequent diabetic eye conditions.

Treatment Options to Prevent Vision Loss

There are many treatment options to prevent further diabetic complications and vision loss. Laser treatments can be performed to stop blood vessels from leaking and prevent diabetic retinopathy from worsening. Recently, anti-VEGF injections have been used to prevent the progression of retinopathy and improve vision. Of course the best way to prevent diabetes from affecting your eyes is to control your blood sugar levels with diet and exercise. Keeping your blood glucose levels within a normal range will help control your diabetes and prevent any damage throughout your body.

If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, the first step to a healthier life is through diet and exercise. If your blood sugar levels go uncontrolled, your body and organs will be subject to damage. Protect your eyes and make sure to have a comprehensive eye exam with dilation at least once per year.

~Erin Tomiyama, Optometry Student
California Optometric Association

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