November is Diabetic Eye Disease Awareness Month. Approximately 34.2 million Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes, while around 88 million currently have prediabetes, the condition that occurs just before diabetes. Because this disease affects so many people, I thought I’d take a moment to discuss the ways that it can affect a person’s vision.
What is Diabetes?
Before we discuss the eye conditions that can happen as a result of diabetes, let’s look at the disease itself. Diabetes occurs when there’s too much sugar (glucose) in the blood over time and not enough insulin (the hormone that helps cells process sugar) being made to handle these glucose levels. There are three types of diabetes, type 1, type 2, and gestational.
Type 1 diabetes is hereditary and happens as a result of the body not being able to make insulin on its own. Type 2 diabetes is largely preventable and is caused by high glucose levels and a person’s body no longer making enough insulin. Once there’s not enough insulin to handle the amount of sugar in the blood, glucose levels are hard to control. While type 1 and type 2 diabetes are incurable, gestational diabetes is usually a temporary condition that affects some women during pregnancy.
What is Diabetic Eye Disease?
While diabetic eye disease may sound like one condition, it’s actually a group of conditions that those living with diabetes are particularly susceptible to. All of these can negatively impact a person’s ability to see clearly and can potentially cause blindness. Eye conditions that affect those with diabetes include the following:
- Diabetic retinopathy- Your retina is the portion of your eye that detects light and sends signals through your optic nerve back to your brain. High blood sugar levels can cause the blood vessels to the retina to leak, damaging the eye over time.
- Diabetic macular edema- This condition is caused by fluid build-up on and around the retina that causes swelling and blurred vision.
- Cataracts- Cataracts can happen to anyone, but diabetics are more at risk due to the increased sugar in their blood.
- Glaucoma- Like cataracts, glaucoma can affect many people, but having diabetes doubles your risk for this condition.
As I said before, diabetes causes an increase of sugar in the bloodstream. This causes damage to blood vessels, which in turn can cause a number of other health problems including diabetic eye disease. Controlling diabetes with medication and diet is the first step to preventing diabetic eye disease.
It’s also extremely important that those living with diabetes or at risk for diabetes have a comprehensive, dilated eye exam at least once a year. While there are very few obvious warning signs of diabetic eye disease, a trained eye care professional can spot and help treat problems before they become more serious.
If you are one of the many people currently living with diabetes, find an eye doctor who will work closely with you to prevent these conditions and keep your eyes healthy for life!