November is Diabetic Eye Disease Awareness Month, as recognized by the American Academy of Ophthalmology and other health organizations. While this month puts the focus on diabetic eye disease, awareness of diabetic retinopathy and other eye conditions related to diabetes is important all year long.
Awareness is especially important if you or a loved one has diabetes and is older than 60. Diabetic retinopathy is a leading cause of blindness in those that are 60 and older. Here’s what you need to know:
What is Diabetic Eye Disease?
Diabetic eye disease can refer to several conditions. Having diabetes increases your risk for common eye conditions like cataracts and glaucoma.
But the primary disease directly linked to diabetes is diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy occurs when the blood vessels that connect your retina to the rest of your circulatory system become cut off. This happens as a result of high levels of glucose, or blood sugar.
In early-stage diabetic retinopathy, also called nonproliferative retinopathy, blood vessels begin to swell and leak. Usually, no symptoms appear at this stage.
But when diabetic retinopathy becomes advanced– or proliferative– abnormal blood vessels begin to grow in the retina. This causes even more swelling and leaking.
Enough swollen and leaking blood vessels cause scar tissue to develop on the retina, leading to visual symptoms. These visual symptoms including dark spots, floaters, and gaps in your vision have no cure. It’s important to diagnose diabetic retinopathy in the early stages to slow down the disease and save your vision.
How to Assess Your Risk
The best way to diagnose diabetic retinopathy in the early stages is to have regular eye exams. If you have diabetes, you’re already at risk and should see an eye doctor at least once a year for routine screenings.
If you have other risk factors, your doctor may recommend you come in more often. These risk factors include:
- Having diabetes for 10 years or more
- Being of African-American, Hispanic, or Native American descent
- Having diabetes that’s poorly managed
- Using tobacco products
- Having high cholesterol
- Having high blood pressure
If you have one or more of these risk factors and diabetes, you should be extra aware of diabetic retinopathy along with other conditions like cataracts and glaucoma. Be sure to discuss how often to come in for eye exams with your eye doctor based on your risk levels. Also, know that it’s best to be safe and go in too often for exams rather than too infrequently.
Prevention and Treatment
You cannot prevent diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, cataracts, or most other age-related eye conditions. But you can lower your risk.
All you need to do to lower your risk is lead a healthy lifestyle. This means keep your blood sugar levels under control, don’t smoke, eat a balanced diet, and exercise regularly.
Doing these things aren’t only good for lowering your risk for diabetic retinopathy, but they’re good habits to develop especially if you’re a diabetic.
If you do develop diabetic retinopathy, there are several treatment options. Diabetic retinopathy cannot be cured, but it can be treated to delay further vision loss.
These treatments include medication and surgical therapies. Medication can come in the form of steroids or anti-VEGF injections.
Anti-VEGF injections inhibit vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). This is a protein that triggers blood vessel growth. Blocking it can stop abnormal blood vessel growth, swelling, and leakage.
Surgical options also come in several forms. One common laser therapy treatment is called photocoagulation. Photocoagulation seals off leaking blood vessels or shrinks swollen blood vessels using controlled laser burns.
Your doctor can recommend treatment options that are right for you. But to get prompt and effective treatment, you need to know if you have diabetic retinopathy! Early detection is key, so be sure to have regular eye exams, especially if you’re high risk.
Concerned about diabetic retinopathy? Schedule an appointment at Sierra Nevada Eye Center in Carson City, NV with one of our eye doctors to learn more!