Over the last two decades, cases of Type 2 diabetes have statistically shot through the roof. Today, 37 million Americans have the disease—one out of ten people—and of those, nearly a quarter haven’t been diagnosed and don’t know they have it.
Diabetes can have a devastating effect on several aspects of a person’s health: The disease, a chronic failure of the body to effectively process blood sugar, can (among other things) worsen cardiovascular disease, slow wound healing, and interfere with kidney function.
But because diabetes is a leading cause of blindness, its effect on eye health is highly detrimental. Because of this threat to vision, Hattiesburg Eye Clinic and other vision care providers across the country are promoting November as Diabetes Eye Disease Awareness Month.
“Diabetes affects vision in a number of ways: dry eyes, a higher risk of glaucoma or accelerated cataract formation,” says Dr. Aubrey Fulton, a Therapeutic Certified Optometrist with Hattiesburg Eye Clinic specializing in the diagnosis and management of eye disease. “But perhaps the greatest danger is the development of a disease called diabetic retinopathy, a top cause of blindness.”
Diabetic retinopathy affects the retina in the back of the eye, an anatomical feature that converts incoming light into signals for the brain to interpret as sight. The retina requires oxygen and other nutrients supplied by several major blood vessels, which lie in front of it.
Diabetes can damage these blood vessels, causing them to leak blood or other fluid, and to form scar tissue. The symptoms related to diabetic retinopathy serve as evidence of that damage: a growing, cloudy haze that slowly intensifies until eyesight is lost.
Dr. Fulton says the disease typically worsens along four distinct stages: mild, moderate, severe and proliferative. It may also damage the macula, a specific part of the retina that provides our most detailed vision.
“At any of these stages, a patient may be unaware of the damage to their eyes until it’s too late,” says Dr. Fulton.” However, a dilated eye exam can spot these signs, offering the key to preventing further damage.”
Patients with diabetic retinopathy now represent a large percentage of the Hattiesburg Eye Clinic’s practice—a percentage that continues to grow.
“The baby boomer generation, one of the country’s largest demographics, is now rapidly entering their senior years, the age range with the highest incidence of diabetes and diabetic retinopathy. To compound the problem, we’re also seeing significant increases in obesity and other conditions that contribute to diabetes.”
Although the damage caused by diabetic retinopathy is permanent, there are treatments to slow its progress and reduce symptoms, including injections, lasers, or other surgeries. Anyone diagnosed with the disease should be closely monitored through frequent eye exams and diagnostic imaging that evaluates the continuing integrity of the eyes’ blood vessels.
But Dr. Fulton says the best strategy is for people to take steps to prevent diabetes and thus avoid diabetic retinopathy altogether. “Preventing diabetes is Priority One. But even if a person does develop the disease, managing it properly can reduce their risk for eye-related diseases like diabetic retinopathy.”
To that end, Dr. Fulton says maintaining a healthy weight and diet, and getting regular exercise, can lower your chances for diabetic retinopathy. On the vision front, he recommends an annual eye exam beginning around age 40, or sooner if you have a family history of diabetes or serious eye disease.
“Detecting any eye disease early, and especially diabetic retinopathy, affords us the best opportunity to stop the disease before it can do significant permanent damage.”
For more information on treatments for diabetic retinopathy, visit our webpage. To learn more about how Hattiesburg Eye Clinic can improve your vision health, call 601-268-5910 (or toll-free 800-624-8254) or schedule a consultation with us online.