Regular eye exams are one of the best ways to avoid diabetic eye diseases
SAN FRANCISCO — In observance of American Diabetes Month this November, ophthalmologists across the country are reminding the 25.8 million Americans living with diabetes – the leading cause of new cases of blindness among adults age 20 to 74 years[i] - of the key steps they should take to prevent vision loss.
Diabetes is a major risk factor for cataract, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, which is the most severe of the three eye diseases which affects approximately 7.7 million Americans. Diabetic retinopathy is more than twice as common in Mexican Americans and nearly three times as common in African Americans as in non-Hispanic whites.[ii],[iii] The American Academy of Ophthalmology advises that diabetic eye diseases can be prevented and their progression can be slowed through early detection and diligent diabetes care. Yet, only 10 percent of people with diabetes in medically underserved communities get screened yearly for diabetic retinopathy.[iv]
In diabetic retinopathy, the small blood vessels inside the retina at the back of the eye are damaged, causing them to leak fluid into the retina, which is the light sensitive tissue in the back of the eye. This is known as macular edema and is the leading cause of moderate vision loss in people with diabetes. As the disease progresses, abnormal blood vessels can grow on the surface of the retina, a process that is called proliferative retinopathy. These vessels can bleed and form scar tissue which can ultimately cause blindness.
To help prevent these complications, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that people with diabetes take the following steps:
- Get a comprehensive dilated eye examination from your ophthalmologist once a year, regardless of your age.
In its early stages, diabetic retinopathy often has no symptoms. A dilated eye exam allows ophthalmologists – medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and medical and surgical treatment of eye diseases – to examine the retina and optic nerve more thoroughly for signs of damage before changes in vision occur. Regularly monitoring eye health allows ophthalmologists to begin treatment as soon as possible if signs of disease do appear. Women with diabetes who become pregnant may need additional eye exams throughout their pregnancy, as pregnancy can sometimes worsen diabetic retinopathy. People age 65 years and older without regular access to eye care or for whom cost is a concern may qualify for EyeCare America, a public service program of the Foundation of the Academy, which partners with the Knights Templar Eye Foundation to offer eye exams and care at no out-of-pocket cost for eligible seniors.
- Maintain close-to-normal blood glucose (sugar) levels.
High blood glucose damages the blood vessels in the eyes. This damage can result in swelling in the retina and the development of abnormal blood vessels that can bleed and form scar tissue. Additionally, when blood glucose levels are too high, the shape of the eye's lens can be affected, causing blurry vision that goes back to normal after the blood glucose levels are stabilized.
- Maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
High blood pressure and high cholesterol can increase the risk of eye disease and vision loss. Keeping both under control will help the eyes as well as overall health.
- Quit smoking.
Smokers are at an increased risk for diabetic retinopathy and other diabetes-related eye diseases.
- Exercise regularly.
Regular exercise can help the eyes stay as healthy as possible while helping to control blood glucose levels.
Careful diabetes management is the best way to prevent vision loss. Although treatments are not usually curative, they can reduce the risk for vision loss and include injectable medications, laser surgery and vitrectomy surgery, during which blood and scar tissue from abnormal vessels are removed.
"Much too frequently patients with diabetes come to me when it's too late, and they are already going blind due to their heightened risk for eye disease," said John Kitchens, M.D., a retina specialist and clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "It is very sad to think that, if only they had acted sooner and had a simple dilated eye exam each year, we could have intervened and saved their vision. Bottom line is: if you have diabetes, don't take this advice lightly, no matter your age."
Through its public education website www.geteyesmart.org, the Academy offers a free educational DVD about preventing and treating diabetic eye diseases, featuring Chicago Bears' center Roberto Garza, whose grandfather lost his sight due to diabetes.
About the American Academy of Ophthalmology
The American Academy of Ophthalmology, headquartered in San Francisco, is the world's largest association of eye physicians and surgeons — Eye M.D.s — with more than 32,000 members worldwide. Eye health care is provided by the three "O's" – ophthalmologists, optometrists, and opticians. It is the ophthalmologist, or Eye M.D., who has the education and training to treat it all: eye diseases, infections and injuries, and perform eye surgery. For more information, visit www.aao.org. The Academy's EyeSmart® program educates the public about the importance of eye health and empowers them to preserve healthy vision. EyeSmart provides the most trusted and medically accurate information about eye diseases, conditions and injuries. OjosSanos™ is the Spanish-language version of the program. Visit www.geteyesmart.org or www.ojossanos.org to learn more.
About EyeCare America
Established in 1985, EyeCare America, a public service program of the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, is committed to the preservation of sight, accomplishing its mission through public service and education. EyeCare America provides year-round eye care services to medically underserved seniors and those at increased risk for eye disease. More than 90 percent of the care made available is provided at no out-of-pocket cost to the patients. EyeCare America is co-sponsored by the Knights Templar Eye Foundation Inc., with additional support provided by Alcon and Genentech. More information can be found at www.eyecareamerica.org.