Diabetes is a major global health issue that affects more than 400 million people worldwide.1 Over time, diabetes can cause problems with blood vessels resulting in diseases such as:
- atherosclerosis (which can lead to heart attack and stroke) and
- microvascular disease (which can cause eye, kidney and nerve damage).
Sun Life Medical Directors Raymond Tso and Athena Remolina have noted that, among these complications, one of the most devastating ones is vision loss due to diabetic retinopathy.
Here are their takeaways on diabetes-related vision loss and what you can do to stop it from happening:
What is diabetic retinopathy?
To put it simply, diabetic retinopathy is a diabetes complication that affects eyes. It’s a leading cause of avoidable visual impairments and blindness worldwide. And it’s the main cause of impaired vision in people between the ages of 25 and 74.2 Plus, other eye diseases such as cataracts and glaucoma are more prevalent in people with diabetes.
Diabetic retinopathy is caused by damage to the blood vessels in the light sensitive tissue in the back of the eye (retina). There are usually two stages involved:
- Early stage, which is less severe. In this stage, blood vessels in the eye may leak fluid into the retina.
- Advanced stage. This is where new blood vessels start to grow in the eye, which are fragile and can bleed. This may cause scarring of the retina and vision loss.
Who’s at risk of diabetic retinopathy?
It can happen to anyone who has type 1 or type 2 diabetes. And it often depends on how long you’ve had diabetes and what your blood sugar levels are like. If you’ve had diabetes for a longer time and poorly controlled blood sugar levels, then you’re at a higher risk of vision loss.
Additional risk factors include:
- hypertension (high blood pressure),
- presence of other microvascular complications such as diabetes-related nephropathy (kidney disease) and neuropathy (nerve damage), and
- high cholesterol levels.
What are the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy?
Many people with diabetic retinopathy have no symptoms until very advanced stages. And by then it may be too late to do anything about the vision loss. These symptoms can include:
- blurry vision or floating spots,
- difficulty telling colours apart and
- trouble seeing things at the center of your focus when reading or driving.
How do you test for diabetic retinopathy?
There are two main tests for diabetic retinopathy:
- Dilated eye exam. For this test, they’ll use eye drops to open your pupils so the retina can be visualized.
- Digital retinal imaging. During this test, they’ll use a special camera to take pictures of the eye.
How do you treat vision loss due to diabetes?
Mild diabetic retinopathy isn’t always treated. But affected individuals can keep the condition from getting worse. How? By keeping their blood sugar and blood pressure levels as close to normal as possible.
Treatment options include:
- Laser surgery, which can stop or slow leakage of blood and fluid in the eye.
- Surgery through a tiny incision in the eye to remove blood from the middle of the eye (vitreous) as well as scar tissue on the retina (Vitrectomy).
- Medicines injected into the eye. Medications called vascular endothelial growth factor (VGEF) inhibitors are injected into the vitreous. This may help stop growth of new blood vessels
How can you help prevent vision loss from diabetes?
Nowadays, people are much more aware that diabetes can lead to vision problems. But misconceptions still exist. For example, some people mistakenly believe you only need to see an eye doctor when symptoms start to show. That’s simply not true and may prevent adequate screening and treatment.
What’s more, 50% of people with diabetes aren’t even aware they have it. And even among those who know they have diabetes, less than half go to routine eye exams.3
So what can you do to help prevent vision loss and eye damage from diabetes? Here are two essential tips to keep in mind:
- Get your eyes checked every year. Regular eye exams are essential for detecting retinopathy at an early stage. That’s when the condition can be monitored and treated to preserve vision.
- Control your blood sugar levels and blood pressure. Optimum control of blood sugar and blood pressure may stop or slow the progression of diabetic retinopathy. It also helps if you can avoid other risk factors like high cholesterol and smoking.
- Your eating habits can affect your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. But is there a specific diet for diabetes? Here’s what you need to know.
Sun Life has taken a leading role in the awareness, prevention, care and research of diabetes all around the world. Since 2012, we’ve committed over $25 million to diabetes initiatives, globally. Learn more at "Taking steps to help prevent diabetes.”
This article is meant to provide general information only. Please seek advice from a qualified medical professional before acting on any information found in this article.
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1 International diabetes federation Atlas 9th edition 2019
2 Diabetic Retinopathy Cheung N, et al. Lancet 2010, Lee R et al. Epidemiology of diabetic retinopathy, diabetic macular edema and related vision loss Eye and Vision (London England) 2015:2:17.
3 Diabetic Retinopathy: Medscape Abdhish R Bhavsar May 2019. And, UpToDate: Diabetic Retinopathy.