Have you or a loved one been diagnosed with diabetes? If so, it’s important to get your eye doctor involved in treatments and preventative care right away. That is, if it wasn’t your eye doctor who made the diagnosis. The link between the eyes and diabetes is so close, it is often discovered during routine eye exams. While most people with diabetes will only experience minor issues with their eyesight, some diabetic eye diseases can cause blindness, so it’s important to educate yourself on possible conditions.
Types of Diabetes
Many are confused by what diabetes is, which is further complicated by there being different kinds. The most common kind affecting approximately 90% of all cases worldwide is type 2 diabetes. This is when the body does not produce enough insulin for proper function, or the cells in the body do not react to insulin. Insullin is a hormone that regulates the way your body uses the food you have eaten. This type is usually developed after age 40. The other kind is type 1 diabetes and is often developed earlier in life, before age 30, and is the result of your body producing little or no insulin. This type is primarily controlled by insulin injections. There’s one last kind called gestational diabetes that is temporary and sometimes arises during the second or third trimester of pregnancy.
How diabetes affects the eyes
Both major types of diabetes cause an abnormal increase in blood sugar levels. This imbalance wrecks all kinds of havoc on the body including the eyes. There is not one but a variety of eye conditions that fall under the category of “diabetic eye disease.” The following are the most common:
- Diabetic retinopathy–This condition is the most serious complication of diabetes and is a leading cause of blindness in the US (almost 8 million Americans according the National Eye Institute). It is a general term for all disorders of the retina caused by diabetes and involves leaking or blockage of the network of blood vessels supplying the retina. Forty percent of people with type 1 diabetes and 20 percent with type 2 diabetes will develop some sort of diabetic retinopathy.
- Diabetic maculopathy/macular edema–Light entering your eye is focused onto one tiny area of your central retina the size of a pinhead called the macula and is vital to seeing fine detail. Diabetic maculopathy, a form of retinopathy, means your macula is affected by diabetes. If this happens, it may be difficult to read print or recognize faces. If the macula swells with fluid, it is called a macula edema and can mean severe vision loss.
- Glaucoma–The increased blood sugar levels caused by diabetes can lead to increased pressure in the eye and damaged nerves. This condition is called glaucoma and people with diabetes are 40% more likely to develop this disorder.
- Cataracts–Diabetes can play a role in speeding up the formation of cataracts. High blood sugar can cause excess sugar to accumulate in the lens affecting the water content, thereby stretching the lens. When the blood sugars go down, the lens returns to its normal shape. These small changes in the lens tissue structure over time can cause the lens to prematurely discolor. People with diabetes are 60% more likely to develop cataracts and many develop the condition at a younger age with faster progression than those without the disease.
Catching diabetic eye disease early can save your vision
An annual eye exam is important for everyone, but it’s absolutely essential if you have diabetes. Many diabetic eye diseases, such as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, have no symptoms in their earliest stages. Early detection and treatment can often reduce your risk of impaired vision or permanent vision loss.