Diabetes comes with an onslaught of potential complications, and high among those are eye problems. Some studies indicate that cataracts are three to four times more prevalent in patients with diabetes who are under the age of 65. In patients over 65, cataracts are twice as prevalent, according to a study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information. To protect your eye health, be sure to review what can make you more susceptible to diabetic eye diseases, the signs, and available treatment options.
The link between diabetes and cataracts
Cataracts are a clouding of the normally clear lens of the eye, and they can begin to develop in your 40s and 50s. Cataracts develop slowly and painlessly over time—in fact, in the early stages, symptoms may be so mild that you don’t even realize your vision is changing. But as a person ages, cataracts grow to the point where they can get in the way of living an active, independent life.
The main reason individuals with diabetes are more likely to develop cataracts is their inability to control their glucose levels. Sugar in the blood, also known as blood glucose, is an important source of energy for cells. Having too much glucose in the blood, though, can damage small blood vessels that deliver oxygen-rich blood and remove harmful toxins. Damage to the small blood vessels in the eyes can cause a number of eye problems, the most prominent being the development of cataracts.
Other vision problems related to diabetes
In addition to cataracts, there are a number of eye conditions associated with diabetes, known collectively as diabetic eye disease. These diseases include diabetic retinopathy, diabetic macular edema, and glaucoma.
Diabetic retinopathy affects the blood vessels in the light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye, known as the retina. Chronically high blood sugar damages the blood vessels in the retina, which causes the blood vessels to leak fluid or blood, distorting your vision. Diabetic macular edema (DME) is a consequence of diabetic retinopathy. DME occurs when the part of the retina responsible for sharp central vision, known as the macula, swells. Among other things, you rely on your macula to read, recognize faces, and drive. About half of all people with diabetic retinopathy will develop DME.
Diabetes also nearly doubles your risk of glaucoma, a degenerative eye condition that can steal your sight before you develop noticeable symptoms. That’s why early detection and screening are key for all diabetes-related vision conditions. Issues that are caught early can be treated more easily, leading to better outcomes for your vision.
Symptoms and treatment for diabetic eye disease
Most diabetic eye diseases present a few symptoms in their early stages. Some people may experience “floating” spots, caused by bleeding from abnormal blood vessels in the retina, but these spots often clear on their own. One of the best ways to determine if diabetes is affecting your vision is to visit your eye doctor. An eye care professional can evaluate the health of your eyes and provide treatment, which may include eye drops, injections, or surgery.
Tips to prevent diabetic eye disease
The good news is that with proper treatment and lifestyle changes, many people with diabetes are able to prevent or delay the onset of vision symptoms. The most important thing you can do is to schedule appointments for annual dilated eye exams. That way, any potential issues are caught at the very first sign. It’s also helpful to maintain your blood sugar levels as close to normal as possible. Carefully manage your blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol. Finally, call your doctor immediately if you experience any symptoms that may indicate an emergency, including holes or black spots in your vision and flashes of light.
If you have diabetes and are concerned about your eye health, don’t wait any longer. Talk to your doctor to schedule a screening. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many offices are now offering virtual appointments as well, so you can receive the eye care you need, wherever you are.
Dr. McGregor N. Lott, M.D., is a Ponte Vedra resident and ophthalmologist at Florida Eye Specialists. For more information on Dr. Lott or to schedule a virtual appointment, visit FloridaEyeSpecialists.com.