Eye Disease and Diabetes: Early Detection Helps Preserve Vision

**By Thomas Saunders, OD**

As a doctor of optometry, I help care for the eye health of hundreds of Puget Sound-area residents each year. With more than 9 percent of Americans having been diagnosed with diabetes and millions more still undiagnosed, many of the patients who come to our office are concerned with the potential complications of this disease. Since November is Diabetic Eye Disease Month, it’s a good time to consider the importance of regular dilated eye exams for the prevention of vision loss.

Thomas Saunders, OD

Thomas Saunders, OD

The basics of diabetes and the eye

Diabetes is a disease that interferes with the body’s ability to use and store sugar. It can affect all ages and is associated with many health problems. Excess sugar in the blood can cause damage throughout the body, including the eyes. In fact, according to the American Optometric Association, diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in adults ages 20 to 70.

Over time, diabetes can damage the blood vessels of the retina, the light-sensitive lining of the back of the eye, a condition called diabetic retinopathy. This damage can cause the blood vessels to leak and bleed, or even trigger the growth of new blood vessels, all of which can have a negative impact on vision. Unfortunately, early stages of diabetic retinopathy may cause no visual symptoms. For this reason, it’s recommend that if you have diabetes or are at risk for developing the disease, you have yearly dilated eye examinations. When the eyes are dilated, an eye doctor is able to examine the retina for signs of diabetic eye disease and prescribe a treatment course to help preserve sight.

Signs and symptoms of diabetic eye disease

As early warning signs of diabetic eye and vision disorders are often subtle or undetected, the American Optometric Association recommends that high-risk individuals monitor closely for changes and contact an eye care provider if they experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Seeing spots or floaters in your field of vision
  • Blurred vision
  • Having a dark or empty spot in the center of your vision
  • Difficulty seeing well at night

People with diabetes are at greater risk for other eye and vision disorders

In addition to diabetic retinopathy, people with diabetes are at higher risk for developing eye diseases like cataracts and certain types of glaucoma.

Cataract is a clouding of the lens of the eye, which blocks light and interferes with normal vision. Many people without diabetes will get cataracts, but those with the disease are 60 percent more likely to develop this eye condition. People with diabetes also tend to get cataracts at a younger age and they may progress more quickly.

Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases characterized by progressive damage to the optic nerve, which may lead to permanent vision loss. People with diabetes are more likely to suffer from certain forms of glaucoma than people without diabetes.

A comprehensive vision examination, including dilation, is important in early detection and timely treatment of these conditions.

Prevention, prevention, prevention

In addition to having a yearly, comprehensive eye exam, I encourage all patients with diabetes to follow these tips to help prevent or slow the development of diabetic eye disease:

  • Take prescribed medications as directed
  • Keep glycohemoglobin test results (‘A1c’ or average blood sugar level) consistently under 7 percent
  • Stick to a healthy diet that includes Omega 3s, fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Exercise regularly
  • Control high blood pressure
  • Avoid alcohol and smoking

Coordinated, convenient care is helpful, especially for people with diabetes

When working with patients with diabetes, I also stress the importance of regular visits with a primary care physician, endocrinologist, podiatrist and diabetes educator, as recommended. Each of these professionals has a role in the holistic care of diabetes.

Fortunately, integrated health systems such as Virginia Mason – which includes regional locations like Federal Way Medical Center – allow people to benefit from team medicine close to where they live and work. This approach to care means all your providers are able to easily communicate with one another to provide appropriate, high-quality care at the right time and in the right location.

I hope this short article has helped to open your eyes to the dangers of diabetic eye disease so, working together, we can help prevent the potential ravages of this manageable condition.

Here is to your health … Cheers!


A version of this article originally appeared in the Federal Way Mirror.
Thomas Saunders, OD, is a doctor of optometry who practices at Virginia Mason Federal Way Medical Center (33501 First Way S. Federal Way, WA 98003); 253-838-2400; www.virginiamason.org/federalway.

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