If you’ve never stopped to think about your diabetes risk, there’s no time like the present! Currently, more than 100 million Americans are living with diabetes or pre-diabetes.
According to the American Diabetes Association, people with parents or siblings with the disease have a higher risk of getting diabetes themselves. Those with high blood pressure or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are also more susceptible, as are people who are overweight or inactive.
If you can relate to any of these things, you should consider doing something that may seem, well, a little random: making an appointment to see your eye doctor.
What does diabetes have to do with eye health?
When you have diabetes, your blood sugar levels are higher than they should be, which can damage the blood vessels in the back of the eye. This can cause the blood vessels to leak blood or fluid into the retina. In turn, the macula—the part of the retina that helps you see the fine details of objects directly in front of you—begins to swell, explains VSP network doctor Jarrett Johnson, OD, MPH.
“The back of the eye is the only place in the body where you can directly view the blood vessels,” Dr Johnson said. “That’s why regular eye exams are vital, as we can get a clear view of what’s going on with your health.”
In addition to spotting warning signs of pre-diabetes and diabetes during an exam (which is so important if you’re at risk for the condition), your eye doctor can also detect diabetic eye diseases, such as diabetic retinopathy and diabetic macular oedema. These conditions don’t always have symptoms so it’s easy for people to overlook them for years. If left unnoticed and unmanaged, these issues can eventually lead to vision loss.
“Early detection is key because the earlier diabetes and diabetes-related eye issues are detected and treated, the more you can prevent damage to the retina,” Dr Johnson says.
OMG, scary! Tell me more about diabetic eye diseases.
According to Dr Johnson, there are a bunch. Here are some of the most common:
- Diabetic retinopathy – This occurs when high blood sugar damages the blood vessels of the retina. It can lead to blurred vision, spots in your vision, dark areas of vision, and vision loss.
- Diabetic macular oedema (DME) – This occurs when the macula swells. Symptoms include blurry vision or wavy vision. You may also experience vision loss.
- Cataracts – While cataracts tend to affect older folks, people with diabetes have an increased risk for the condition. This is because high blood sugar levels can cause deposits to build up in the lenses of the eye, according to the National Institutes Of Health (NIH). Cataracts can cause blurry, hazy, or less colourful vision.
- Glaucoma – When diabetic retinopathy progresses, it leads to the growth of abnormal blood vessels in the eye. This can interfere with the normal flow of fluid out of the eye, causing increased pressure. That increased pressure can damage the optic nerve, leading to glaucoma. The condition can cause tunnel vision, severe headaches, blurred vision, or eye redness.
So, how can regular eye exams help keep my peepers healthy?
During a comprehensive eye exam, your eye doctor will dilate your eyes. This allows them to examine your retinas to check for any abnormalities—such as leaky blood vessels, macular swelling, and nerve tissue damage, Dr Johnson notes. Your near and far vision and eye pressure will also be checked.
If your eye doctor detects anything suspicious, you may be referred to your primary care doctor or another specialist to see if you may have diabetes. “It’s important that you, your primary care specialist, and your eye doctor work together as a team to create a personalized care plan to help manage and monitor your health,” Dr Johnson explains.
While everyone needs to see an eye doctor every year, for those already diagnosed with diabetes or pre-diabetes, it is even more crucial. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, early detection (through an eye exam!) and treatment can prevent or delay blindness due to diabetic retinopathy in 90 per cent of people with diabetes.