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November is Diabetes Awareness Month

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An estimated 29 million Americans are living with Diabetes. Chances are it affects you or someone you know. November has been dedicated as a time to spread awareness about the disease, its risk factors and the effects it has on your body, your daily life and the lives of your loved ones.

Diabetes and Your Eyes

Diabetes is a disease that causes fluctuations in blood sugar levels which affect blood vessels throughout the body including the vessels in your eyes. Diabetics have a higher risk for blindness than the general population. However, recent research confirms that 95% of diabetics who have their eyes examined yearly can prevent blindness from the disease.

Many diabetic complain of blurred vision. Even small changes in glucose levels can result in blurred vision or floaters. Knowing your blood glucose or HbA1C history is helpful for determining if recent blurred vision can be fixed with glasses or not. Occasionally diabetics can have double vision or even visual field loss. Diabetics also have an increased risk for developing eye diseases such as glaucoma (40% increase risk) and cataracts (60% increased risk). Early detection and treatment of these conditions can restore vision or prevent further loss of vision.

Early diabetic eye disease has no symptoms or pain. So the only way to detect diabetic changes to the eye is to have a comprehensive eye exam. Dilating the pupils is essential to detect signs of diabetic eye disease. Your family doctor will recommend a yearly dilated eye exam if you are diabetic. One important note: online vision assessments cannot detect diabetic eye disease.

The most concerning problem with diabetes is diabetic retinopathy which can lead to blindness if not diagnosed and treated.

What You Need to Know About Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy occurs when the blood vessels or capillaries in the back of the eye develop weakened vessel walls. If not treated, the vessels leak blood or fluid. This becomes hemorrhages in the retina.  Over time the eye does not receive enough oxygen and from the lack of proper blood supply. As a result, the body grows new small blood vessels in the back of eye. These new vessels leak and will cause further bleeding, scarring and is one of the leading causes of diabetic blindness. The area of central retina where your center vision comes from, the macula, is especially susceptible to diabetes. Diabetic macular edema (when fluid seeps into the macula) can cause permanent central vision loss if not promptly detected and treated.

The treatment for diabetic retinopathy can be laser therapy or intraocular injections to stop bleeding in the eye. Unfortunately, if damage to vision has occurred, it usually cannot be restored. This is why routine eye exams are so important for early detection and treatment.

All diabetics should have at least an annual comprehensive eye exam to look for early signs of diabetic retinopathy or other sight threatening conditions. Individual follow-up schedules can vary. Your eye doctor will tell you how often you should have an eye exam. Here are the major risk factors for diabetic retinopathy:

  • Length of time living with diabetes
  • Uncontrolled or poorly controlled blood sugar
  • High blood pressure or hypertension
  • Smoking or tobacco use
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Pregnancy - gestational diabetes
  • Genetic inheritance

Blindness from diabetes is preventable with routine eye exams. Yet it is still a leading cause of blindness among working-age adults. If you or someone you know has diabetes, make sure that they make time for an eye exam. It could save their sight.

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