Can Diabetes Lead To Vision Loss?

When the word "diabetes" pops up, what comes into mind is high blood sugar levels. Diabetes hampers the body's ability to produce insulin, which turns the glucose stored inside into energy. It has many symptoms and effects, and one of them is vision loss that is triggered by a complication called diabetic retinopathy.

A post on the Harvard Health Blog stated that diabetic retinopathy is most common cause of vision loss among working class American adults, 30 million of which suffer from diabetes, and will continue to be so since the number of people with diabetes increased over the past 20 years. The result of damaged blood vessels of the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eyes,  shows no visible symptoms at first but eventually leads to blindness because these damaged blood vessels not only leak fluid, but bleed as well; unable to provide enough oxygen to the retina, they cause the retina to lose its function, all while directly damaging its neurons. Initially affecting central vision, it later leads to blurry vision and distorted images, in addition to fluctuating and impaired color vision.

Diabetic retinopathy has a more severe form, called proliferative diabetic retinopathy. Characterized by formation of irregular blood vessels that affect the insides of the eyes, it can lead to retinal detachment, resulting in permanent, irreparable vision loss if not treated immediately and promptly.

Anyone who has type 1 or type 2 diabetes can develop diabetic retinopathy. The likelihood to develop this eye condition increases the longer the person has diabetes, especially with less controlled blood sugar levels. While it does not develop before puberty for type 1 diabetics, type 2 diabetics may have signs of eye problems soon after being diagnosed.

The best way for diabetics with vision problems to find out if they have diabetic retinopathy is to consult with an ophthalmologist. Type 1 diabetics may have to see one once a year for five years from the onset of the disease, while type 2 diabetics should see one for a retinal examination soon after diagnosis, scheduling annual exams afterwards. Frequent visits are a must for either pregnant women or those with proliferative diabetic retinopathy.

When oxygen is absent in the retina, it begins the production of a signal protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) that the Harvard Medical School discovered to have a role in the growth of eye disease. Fortunately, there are are anti-VEGF medications available that can improve diabetic retinopathy symptoms. Injected directly into the eye, they do not just improve the severity of the disease, but also improve diabetic macular edema that initially affects the central vision of those suffering from diabetic retinopathy. 

Of course, prevention is better than the cure. According to the American Diabetes Association, preventing the risk of diabetes-linked complications requires most diabetics to keep the level of A1C, the blood sugar levels measured over the past 2-3 months, below 7 percent. Although they are not yet proven to alter the course of diabetic retinopathy, blood pressure control and managed cholesterol levels are also a must. Since smoking increases the risk of getting the eye complication, it is essential for smokers to seek help from doctors in quitting the habit.

diabetes More than 29 million people in the United States alone have diabetes. Photo courtesy of Pixabay