Understanding Diabetic Eye Disease
According to the Indian Health Service, almost 16 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives have diabetes. Rates of diabetes vary considerably in different regions, from 6 percent among Alaska Natives to 24 percent among American Indians in southern Arizona.
Controlling diabetes is important for American Indians and Alaska Natives because they are at higher risk for losing vision or going blind from diabetic eye disease—a group of conditions that includes the following:
Cataract—A clouding in the lens of the eye.
Diabetic retinopathy—Changes in the blood vessels of the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye.
Glaucoma—An increase in eye pressure that damages the optic nerve, a bundle of fibers that carries visual signals to the brain.
Diabetic eye disease can affect many parts of the eye—including the retina, macula, lens, and optic nerve—and all forms of diabetic eye disease have the potential to cause severe vision loss and blindness.
The best way to help prevent vision loss from diabetes is to get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year. Diabetic eye disease often has no symptoms in its early stages. In fact, most people do not notice vision problems until the disease reaches an advanced stage. That’s why it’s important to not wait until you notice vision problems before you see an eye care provider. The longer you have diabetes, the more likely you will develop diabetic eye disease.
Dr. Paul Sieving, director of the National Eye Institute (NEI), says, “Only about half of all people with diabetes get an annual comprehensive dilated eye exam, which is essential for detecting diabetic eye disease early, when it is most treatable.”
Tracking the Numbers
Among adults age 20 to 74, diabetes is the leading cause of new cases of blindness, with diabetic retinopathy causing 12,000 to 24,000 new cases of blindness each year.
Diabetic retinopathy is the most common form of diabetic eye disease, affecting 7.7 million Americans. By 2030, that number will likely increase to more than 11 million people, including many American Indians and Alaska Natives.
If you have diabetes, making annual comprehensive dilated eye exams part of your self-management routine is extremely important. Early diagnosis, timely treatment, and appropriate follow-up care can prevent or delay 95 percent of severe vision loss from diabetes.
“More than ever, it’s important for people with diabetes to have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year. New treatments are being developed all the time, and we are learning that different treatments may work best for different patients. What hasn’t changed is that early treatment is always better,” says Dr. Suber Huang, chair of the Diabetic Eye Disease Subcommittee for NEI’s National Eye Health Education Program (NEHEP) and member of the NEI-funded Diabetic Retinopathy Clinical Research Network. “There has never been a more hopeful time in the treatment of diabetic retinopathy,” he adds.
Staying on TRACK
Staying on TRACK doesn’t require a sweatsuit, coach, and whistle. People with diabetes can prevent vision loss by getting an annual comprehensive dilated eye exam and keeping their health on TRACK. TRACK refers to a list of five important steps that can help people keep diabetes under control:
Take your medications as prescribed by your doctor.
Reach and maintain a healthy weight.
Add physical activity to your daily routine.
Control your ABC’s—A1C, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.
Kick the smoking habit.
Spreading the Word About Preventing Vision Loss from Diabetes
Living with diabetes can be challenging, but you don’t have to lose your vision or go blind because of it. To help friends and loved ones reduce their risk, share this article.
For more information on diabetic eye disease, tips on finding an eye care professional, or information on financial assistance, visit the National Eye Institute or call NEI at 301–496–5248.
The National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, leads the federal government’s research on the visual system and eye diseases. NEI supports basic and clinical science programs that result in the development of sight-saving treatments.
The National Institutes of Health, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases.
Neyal J. Ammary-Risch, MPH, MCHES, is the director of the National Eye Health Education Program. She manages the planning, development, implementation and evaluation of national health education programs on diabetic eye disease, glaucoma, low vision, vision and aging, and community and special population outreach. She also serves as the Health Literacy Coordinator for the NEI and oversees social media for NEHEP.