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Eye on Diabetes

Nov 23, 2015

If you are one of the 29 million people in the U.S. affected by diabetes, you probably know that you are at risk for eye disease. If this is news to you, don't panic, but do be aware of the risks. The good news is, most diabetic eye disease can be treated before it causes vision loss.

What Is Diabetic Eye Disease?

Diabetic eye disease refers to a group of eye problems that people with diabetes may face as a result of circulation damage.

  • Diabetic retinopathy: Damage to the blood vessels in the retina
  • Cataract: Clouding of the lens of the eye
  • Glaucoma: Increase in fluid pressure inside the eye that leads to optic nerve damage

Of the three conditions, diabetic retinopathy is the most common and is the leading cause of blindness in American adults.

It starts when blood vessels in the retina begin to change. In some cases, they may swell and leak fluid. In others, abnormal new blood vessels grow on the surface of the retina. These changes are serious, and yet in the beginning stages, you may not even know they're taking place. There's no pain and your vision might not change until the disease becomes severe.

Yes, it's scary, but if you have diabetes, in addition to following all of your doctor's orders, from taking your medications as prescribed and maintaining a healthy weight, your first line of defense is to get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year. "Diabetic eye diseases may progress a long way without symptoms, so regular eye exams are critical," says Moran Eye Center specialist, Paul Bernstein, MD, PhD.

"The longer someone has diabetes, the more likely he or she will get diabetic retinopathy. A dilated exam allows your doctor to check your retina for early signs of the disease, including leaking blood vessels, retinal swelling (macular edema), fatty deposits on the retina, damaged nerve tissue and any changes to the blood vessels. It's all right there, in the back of your eye. If it's detected early enough, treatments are available."

According to the National Eye Institute, vision loss due to diabetic retinopathy is sometimes irreversible. But, early detection and treatment can reduce the risk of blindness by 95 percent. Learn more about diabetic retinopathy.