People with diabetes face eye problems that can lead to vision loss or even blindness. A yearly eye exam can help catch those problems early. But many people with diabetes don’t have routine eye exams.
Jeff Todd of Prevent Blindness says the rising rate of diabetes is making vision loss more common among younger Americans. It isn’t unusual for people with diabetes to have eye disease in their 30s and 40s. Those who get diabetes at a younger age live with the health issue for a longer time. The longer a person has diabetes, the greater the chance of having diabetic eye disease.
For people at any age with diabetes, finding problems early is the key to slowing the progression of diabetic eye diseases.
Diabetic Retinopathy: Damage to the Retina
Diabetes can cause an eye problem called diabetic retinopathy. It causes harm to the eye’s retina, a thin layer of light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye. When light strikes the retina, it sends a signal to the brain that is turned into images.
There are two major types of the diabetic retinopathy. The most common kind is nonproliferative retinopathy, where capillaries in the back of the eye balloon and become blocked.
The most serious kind is proliferative retinopathy, where blood vessels feeding the retina leak. Then retinal cells swell, and vision becomes cloudy. If not treated, it can cause the retina to tear.
Over time, diabetic retinopathy can cause loss of vision and blindness.
Warning signs of diabetic retinopathy include:
- Blurred eyesight
- Spots in your vision
- A hole in the core of your field of vision
In the early stages, there are usually no signs. That’s why it’s so vital to have an eye exam each year. Finding out early that you have diabetic retinopathy and getting proper health care can greatly lower the chance of blindness.
Other Diabetes-Related Eye Problems
In addition to diabetic retinopathy, there are other eye health problems that those with diabetes are at higher risk of having.
Diabetic macular edema (DME): With DME, fluid builds up in the middle part of the retina. This part of the eye is vital for focusing eyesight. The swelling from fluid buildup can cause loss of vision. About half of all people with diabetic retinopathy will also get DME. DME must be treated to prevent vision loss.
Cataracts: Cataracts happen when the lens of the eye becomes cloudy and starts to block light, causing vision loss. The chance of getting cataracts is greater for people with diabetes. And if you have diabetes, cataracts can start at a younger age and grow more quickly.
Glaucoma: People with diabetes also are more likely to get glaucoma. This is when pressure builds up in the eye. That harms vessels that carry blood to the optic nerve and retina. It can cause blindness.
The treatments for all of these diabetic eye diseases are most effective when started early.
Schedule an eye exam.
Even if you aren’t having vision problems, it’s important to get regular eye exams. Many people don’t even know they are at higher chance of vision loss because they don’t know they are diabetic. An eye exam can help identify diabetes and other serious health problems. And eye exams can help find problems before there are noticeable symptoms, when less damage has been done.
Sources: Keep an Eye on Your Vision Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2018; Healthy Eyes Matter, CDC, 2014; Eye Complications, American Diabetes Association, 2013; Your Eyes Could Be the Windows to Your Health, American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2014; Facts About Diabetic Eye Disease, National Eye Institute, NIH, 2015