Diabetic retinopathy – Focusing on a growing issue

The prevalence of diabetes in the Unites States has grown to around 29.3 million Americans or 9.5% of the population with this serious condition.  Diabetes has a long list of complications that can develop overtime, one of them being diabetic retinopathy.

Diabetic retinopathy occurs when diabetes damages the tiny blood vessels inside the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. It is the most common cause of vision loss among people with diabetes and the leading cause of vision impairment and blindness in working-age adults ages 20-74.

Currently approximately 7.7 million people with diabetes have diabetic retinopathy with the numbers predicted to grow to 11 million by 2030 and 14.5 million by 2050.

Causes of diabetic retinopathy

The primary cause is chronically high blood glucose or sugar from diabetes that will damage the tiny blood vessels in the retina, leading to diabetic retinopathy.  The retina detects light and converts it to signals sent through the optic nerve to the brain.  People with diabetic retinopathy will have blood vessels in the retina that leak fluid or hemorrhage (bleed) causing vision problems. 

Early symptoms and detection of diabetic retinopathy

Unfortunately, there are no symptoms in the early stages of diabetic retinopathy until vision loss occurs.  One of the first noticeable symptoms is the appearance of “floating” spots due to bleeding from abnormal retinal blood vessels. 

This is why it is vital all individuals with diabetes, both type 1 and type 2, should have a yearly exam with an optometrist who will dilate their eyes annually to be able to see back to the retina for any bleeding or tears. 

A comprehensive dilated eye exam, a painless procedure, is necessary to detect diabetic retinopathy to look for the following:

·         Changes to blood vessels

·         Leaking blood vessels

·         Swelling of the macula

·         Changes in the lens

·         Damage to nerve tissue

Prevention and treatment

If the vision loss is too extensive, diabetic retinopathy is usually irreversible.  What will prevent this and greatly help reduce the risk of blindness by 95 percent is early detection and follow-up care. 

In order to reduce the risk of diabetic retinopathy, the following preventative measures must be taken by all individuals with diabetes:

·         Take all prescribed medications

·         Reach and maintain a healthy body weight

·         Add physical activity to your daily routine

·         Control your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol

·         Don’t smoke

·         Have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year

·         Women with diabetes who become pregnant should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam as soon as possible

Long term outlook

Anyone diagnosed with diabetes, type 1 or type 2, needs to take action to prevent this debilitating condition from happening.  The more a person with diabetes takes personal control of their disease, the more likely they can avoid serious complications like diabetic retinopathy.  Work with an endocrinologist to help you be as healthy as possible throughout your lifetime.