The statistic may be surprising but it’s true: Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness among adults between the ages of 20 and 74.
The main reason behind this statistic is that diabetics are vulnerable to something called diabetic retinopathy, a disease that can cause blood vessels in the retina to swell and leak, sometimes even closing completely. It can also cause the growth of abnormal blood vessels on the retina itself.
The alarming thing is diabetic retinopathy doesn’t show symptoms in the early stages so symptoms may not appear until damage has been done to the retina, requiring treatments like laser surgery, ocular injections, or replacing the vitreous (the fluid that fills the eye).
That’s why it’s important that people with diabetes get a comprehensive eye exam every year. Unfortunately, 25 percent of people with diabetes do not get the recommended exams even though 90 percent of diabetic-related blindness is preventable through early detection, timely treatment and follow-up care.
Aside from getting annual eye exams, what can people with diabetes do to prevent blindness?
The most important thing is to practice good blood glucose control. It’s the elevated levels of glucose that cause damage to the eyes, so it’s important to work with your doctor to keep your glucose at healthy, appropriate levels.
Recently, I saw a patient who has retinopathy and was admittedly not controlling her blood sugars very well, but she has been working very hard with her primary care doctor. Now, her A1C level (the test that shows the average levels of blood glucose over the past three months) has gone down and the health of her retinas has improved in just the course of two years. Taking your prescribed medication, following your recommended diet, and exercising regularly will all help you maintain your glucose levels in addition to your overall health.
Kidney disease, high blood pressure, smoking and pregnancy are also risk factors, so make sure that you are addressing these issues with your doctor.
The good news is that while 4.2 million people with diabetes have some form of diabetic retinopathy, it can easily be managed if it’s caught early. Remember, healthy diabetic eyes come from healthy diabetic bodies. Keeping your blood glucose under control and getting an eye exam every year can prevent you from developing diabetes-related blindness.
Eric Leavitt, OD, practices at the Kaiser Permanente North Lancaster Medical Office.