FEATURE | Posted Nov. 3, 2015

Preventing vision loss from diabetes

Early diagnosis and treatment key

Dr. Susanna Park © UC Regents

About Dr. Park

Susanna S. Park is a professor of ophthalmology at the UC Davis Eye Center. She specializes in the surgical and medical management of all vitreo-retinal disorders including macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, retinal detachment, posterior uveitis and trauma.

The number of Americans with diabetes has tripled over the past three decades, from 5.6 million in 1980 to nearly 21 million in 2011. And if current trends continue, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that as many as 1 in 3 U.S. adults could have diabetes by 2050.

This November, as part of National Diabetes Awareness Month, know what you can do to protect your eyes from vision loss associated with diabetic eye disease. Early diagnosis and timely treatment are key to preserving your vision.

“All diabetic patients should be aware of potential diabetic complications in the eye, which can lead to vision loss or blindness,” said Susanna S. Park, retinal specialist at the UC Davis Eye Center.

“People with either types 1 and 2 diabetes are at risk for diabetic eye disease,” Park said. “The risk increases the longer a person has diabetes and the less they are able to control their blood sugar levels. But early detection and treatment of the eye disease can help prevent vision loss.”

Info graphic diabetic eye disease © NIH

High blood glucose and pressure levels the problem

Diabetes is a condition in which the body does not properly process glucose (i.e. sugar) from food for use as energy. The resulting chronically high blood glucose can lead to damages in the blood vessels of the body and result in complications of diabetes, including diabetic eye disease. People who also have uncontrolled high blood pressure will be at increased risk.

“Untreated high blood glucose and high blood pressure will eventually damage the small blood vessels in the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. Blurring of vision or blindness can result as the damaged vessels close up or cause leaking of fluid and protein from the blood into the retina,” Park said.

The condition, known as diabetic retinopathy, is the most common form of diabetic eye disease leading to blindness among U.S. working-aged adults 20–74 years. By 2030, the CDC estimates that 11 million people will have diabetic retinopathy.

People with diabetes also are more likely to develop cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s lens, and glaucoma, high pressure in the fluid of the eye, which damages the optic nerve.

According to the National Eye Institute, African Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives, Hispanics/Latinos and older adults are at higher risk for losing vision or going blind from diabetes.

Early detection, timely treatment essential

Diabetic eye disease often has no warning signs, but it can be detected and treated early, before noticeable vision loss occurs. With early detection, timely treatment and appropriate follow-up, the risk of severe vision loss from diabetic retinopathy can be reduced by 95 percent, or almost entirely eliminated.

People with diabetes should get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year. A dilated eye exam is when an eye-care professional puts drops in the eyes to dilate, or widen, the pupils in order to examine the back of the eyes for signs of retinopathy.

Stay on TRACK to prevent blindness

The National Eye Institute has launched the Stay on TRACK campaign to increase awareness about diabetic eye disease and prevent blindness.

If you have diabetes, it’s important to:

  • Take your medications as prescribed by your doctor.
  • Reach and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Add physical activity to your day
  • Control your ABC’s—A1C, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.
  • Kick the smoking habit.

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