Diabetes is a serious concern for doctors here in the United States. According to the American Diabetes Association’s 2014 report, 29.1 million Americans had diabetes in 2012. That’s 9.3% of the population. Unfortunately, diabetes is not just a long-term condition that affects a patient's blood sugar levels. Over time, diabetes can also affect other areas of a diabetic patient's health - including their eyes and vision. Because of this, it’s important for diabetic patients to understand how their condition could affect their visual health - and to work with both their primary care and their eye doctors to keep their eyes as healthy as possible.
How Diabetes Can Affect Vision
Many people don’t realize that diabetic eye disease is a possible complication of living with diabetes, particularly poorly treated or ignored diabetes. Untreated or poorly monitored cases of diabetes can lead to high blood sugar levels in a patient and directly increase one’s risk of developing eye problems. Specific kinds of eye diseases and problems that may develop in patients dealing with diabetes include:
Diabetic retinopathy: Diabetic retinopathy is the most common diabetic eye disease and a leading cause of blindness in American adults. It is caused by changes in, and damage to, the blood vessels of the retina. Patients dealing with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are both at risk of developing this issue.
Diabetic Macular edema: One complication of diabetic retinopathy is diabetic macular edema. This is due to leakage from very small blood vessels, leading to accumulation of fluid in the central retina, also referred to as the macula. This is the most common cause of vision loss in patients with diabetes.
Cataracts: While cataracts are a common eye problem in general, people with diabetes are 60% more likely to develop cataracts than non-diabetic individuals.
Glaucoma: It’s estimated that people with diabetes are twice as likely to develop glaucoma as are non-diabetics. Diabetic patients should regularly visit their eye doctor to monitor for signs of glaucoma, and to receive treatment should it start to develop.
Each of these diabetic eye diseases can cause vision problems or even complete vision loss if they are left untreated. Because of this, it’s important for diabetic patients to take steps to prevent and monitor for these issues.
Preventing Diabetes-Related Vision Problems
To minimize their risk of developing vision problems, patients with diabetes should always work to keep their blood sugar levels under control. Research and trials have shown that “people on standard diabetes treatment [develop] retinopathy four times as often as people who [keep] their blood sugar levels close to normal”. Research has also shown that carefully controlling blood sugar levels can even slow down the progression of diabetic retinopathy.
Additionally, diabetic patients should aim to keep their blood pressure at a healthy level and should avoid smoking. High blood pressure can actually damage the vessels in and behind the eye, while smoking has been shown to raise the risk of developing numerous eye problems. Combined with diabetes, either of these factors can increase a patient’s risk of developing a vision problem or eye disease. Fortunately, by controlling their blood pressure, and avoiding a smoking habit, diabetic patients can keep their own risk of developing vision problems at a minimum.
Eye Care Guidelines For Diabetic Patients
While caring for themselves will minimize their risk of developing complications, patients who are dealing with diabetes should always see their eye care professional at least once a year for a dilated eye exam. This is because eye doctors can examine a patient’s eyes much more thoroughly than a regular doctor - and unlike a primary care doctor, optometrists and ophthalmologists can detect the earliest signs of eye problems.
Diabetic patients should also call their eye doctor immediately if they develop sudden vision problems such as (or not limited to) blurriness, double vision, the appearance of floaters or spots; eye pain, pressure or redness should also be reported to an eye doctor.
With many people today now living with diabetes, it’s important that diabetic and non-diabetic patients alike understand how this condition can affect someone’s vision. By learning about the vision problems associated with diabetes, current patients can better care for their eyes, while non-diabetic patients can assist diabetic family members and reduce their own risk of developing the condition.
If you have questions about your own health, we encourage you to call your doctors to develop a health plan that will help you care for yourself in the months and years to come.