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Keep an Eye on Diabetes: Protect Your Eyesight with Regular Screenings

More than 11% of Americans have diabetes, while 38% have a precursor condition known as prediabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

If you are under a doctor's care for diabetes, you probably know that you are at risk for diabetic eye disease. If this is news to you, don't panic! 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 due to circulatory system damage. These include:

  • Diabetic retinopathy: Damage to the blood vessels in the retina
  • Cataract: Clouding of the lens of the eye
  • Glaucoma: Increased fluid pressure inside the eye, leading to optic nerve damage

Of the three conditions, diabetic retinopathy is the most common—and the leading cause of new cases of blindness in American adults. It starts when blood vessels change in the retina and light-sensitive layers of nerve tissue at the back of the eye send electrical signals through the optic nerve to the brain.

In some cases, the blood vessels may swell and leak fluid. In others, abnormal new blood vessels grow on the retina's surface. These changes are serious, and 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 worsens.

Here's What You Can Do

If you have diabetes, your first step 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 Paul Bernstein, MD, a retinal specialist at John A. Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah.

The latest eye imaging techniques for diabetic retinopathy screening are highly accurate and advanced. If you live in a rural area without access to an ophthalmologist, ask your physician about remote screenings and diagnosis options.

"The longer someone has diabetes, the more likely they will get diabetic retinopathy," Bernstein says. "A dilated exam allows your doctor to check your retina for early signs of the disease, including leaking blood vessels, retinal swelling, fatty deposits on the retina, damaged nerve tissue, and any changes to the blood vessels. If it's detected early enough, treatments are available."