If you have diabetes, supporting and protecting your ocular health should be a top priority. That’s because this chronic metabolic disorder can damage your eyes and drastically increase your risk of developing serious eye diseases that may lead to vision loss or even blindness.
As a seasoned optometrist who specializes in preventive eye care at Elite Eye Care in New York City, Dr. Markiel Yakubov provides a full scope of services for patients who are at risk of developing — or already affected by — diabetic eye disease.
Read on as Dr. Yakubov explores how diabetes can affect your eyes and impact your vision, and explains what you can do to protect your ocular health.
How can diabetes damage my eyes?
Diabetes — both type 1 and type 2 — can affect your eyes when your blood sugar (glucose) levels are chronically elevated. When your blood sugar levels remain high over time, it can systematically damage the tiny blood vessels in your eyes’ retinas.
Located at the back of your inner eye, the retina is a thin layer of tissue that changes light and images into nerve signals to be sent to your brain. Damage to the small blood vessels that sustain your retinal tissues can begin during prediabetes, when your blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough for you to be diagnosed with diabetes.
While you’re not likely to experience vision loss from high blood sugar levels in the short term, the long-term ocular complications of uncontrolled diabetes can be very serious.
Over time, damaged retinal vessels can leak fluid and cause swelling. To compensate for the damaged vessels, new, weaker blood vessels may begin to grow. These deficient vessels can bleed into the middle part of your eye, causing dangerously high internal pressure or scarring.
Understanding diabetic eye disease
Diabetic eye disease is an umbrella term for a group of eye complications that can develop with uncontrolled diabetes and the retinal blood vessel damage it causes. The diabetic eye diseases that can make it hard to read, see at night, or threaten your vision are:
This serious eye disease occurs when retinal blood vessels bulge or leak. Left undetected, it can progress to a “proliferative” stage that causes new, weaker blood vessels to form on the retinal surface. The abnormal vessels can lead to serious vision problems, including floating spots, cobweb-like streaks, and eventually, blindness.
About 1 in 3 adults with diabetes has diabetic retinopathy, which is the most common cause of vision loss among people with diabetes and a leading cause of blindness in the United States.
Diabetic macular edema
Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to swelling in the macula, or the part of your retina you need for sharp central vision (reading, driving, and seeing faces). Over time, diabetic macular edema can destroy your central vision, leading to partial vision loss or blindness. It usually develops in people who already have diabetic retinopathy.
Diminished quality of life
Ongoing dry eye can give rise to persistently blurry vision that makes it difficult to read or drive. Over time, blurry vision may worsen or lead to double vision, making routine daily tasks all but impossible.
Glaucoma is a group of progressive eye diseases that damages the optic nerve, or the bundle of nerves that connect the eye to the brain. Without early treatment, it can lead to irreversible vision loss. People with diabetes are twice as likely to develop glaucoma — particularly a type called open-angle glaucoma — compared to those who don’t have diabetes.
Having diabetes also doubles your risk of developing cataracts, or clouded lenses. The lenses of your eyes are clear structures that help provide sharp vision. While they do tend to become cloudy with age, people with diabetes are more likely to get cataracts — and at an earlier age — than non-diabetics.
Am I at risk for vision complications?
Simply having diabetes increases your risk of developing diabetic eye disease, but that doesn’t mean vision loss is a foregone conclusion. There’s a lot you can do to mitigate your risk, starting with learning what kind of exacerbating factors make serious diabetic eye disease more likely. These include:
- Poorly controlled blood sugar levels
- Living with diabetes for a long time
- Having high blood pressure (hypertension)
- Having unhealthy cholesterol levels
- Being a smoker (habitual tobacco use)
- Not having comprehensive eye exams
Often, there are no early warning signs of diabetic eye disease. Even as the damage expands within your retina, you may not experience any obvious pain or noticeable vision changes that would point to a brewing problem.
Maintaining eye health with diabetes
As worrying as diabetic eye disease may be, it’s not all bad news: keeping your blood sugar under control, knowing and managing your additional risk factors for diabetic eye disease, and having regular, dilated-eye exams can go a long way in helping you protect your ocular health and preserve your vision.
Finding and treating the most common form of diabetic eye disease — diabetic retinopathy — as early as possible can reduce your risk of total vision loss by up to 95%. Likewise, finding any diabetic eye disease early can give you the opening you need to halt its progression and save your eyesight.
To learn more or schedule your next comprehensive eye exam at Elite Eye Care, call or click online to book an appointment at your nearest New York City location today — we have one office in Brooklyn, and four offices throughout the Bronx.