According to the American Diabetes Association nearly 21 million Americans are affected by diabetes and another 54 million are considered pre-diabetic. It is the leading cause of death, disability and blindness in the US for adults ages 20-74. The CDC estimates that 4.1 million people currently have diabetic retinopathy and that by the year 2020 7.2 million will have the eye disease.
Diabetic retinopathy causes progressive damage to the retina, the light-sensitive lining at the back of the eye. Diabetic retinopathy is a serious sight-threatening complication of diabetes. Diabetes interferes with the body’s ability to use and store sugar (glucose). The disease is characterized by too much sugar in the blood, which can cause damage throughout the body, including the eyes.
Over time, diabetes damages the blood vessels in the retina. Diabetic retinopathy occurs when these tiny blood vessels leak blood and other fluids. This causes the retinal tissue to swell, resulting in cloudy or blurred vision. The condition usually affects both eyes. The longer a person has diabetes, the more likely they will develop diabetic retinopathy. If left untreated, diabetic retinopathy can cause blindness.
Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy include seeing spots or floaters, blurred vision, having a dark or empty spot in the center of your vision, difficulty seeing at night and vision that seems to fluctuate. When people with diabetes experience long periods of high blood sugar, fluid can accumulate in the lens inside the eye that controls focusing. This changes the curvature of the lens, leading to blurred vision and or changes in a glasses prescription. This is commonly referred to as a diabetic shift.
Treatment for diabetic retinopathy depends on the stage of the disease. The goal of any treatment is to slow or stop the progression of the disease. In the early stages of non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy, regular monitoring may be the only treatment. If the disease advances, the blood vessels can leak blood and fluid into the retina, leading to macular edema. Laser treatment and medication injected directly into the back of the eye can stop or slow down the progression of this leakage.
If you are diabetic, you can help prevent or slow the development of diabetic retinopathy by taking your prescribed medication, maintaining a proper diet, exercising regularly, controlling high blood pressure and avoiding alcohol and smoking. Following your doctor’s advice for controlling sugar levels can help control the progression of the disease and reduce the risk of diabetic retinopathy by as much as 76 percent. It is recommended to have annual dilated eye examinations to monitor the progress of this eye disease.