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Diabetes and Diabetic Eye Disease: Get Your Eyes Examined Today

If you or someone you care about is living with diabetes, it’s crucial to understand the risk for diabetic eye disease, which can lead to blindness.

Silent Public Health Crisis

American Indians and Alaska Natives are more likely than any other group of U.S. adults to have diabetes. According to the Indian Health Service, almost 16 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives have diabetes. If you or someone you care about is living with diabetes, it’s crucial to understand the risk for diabetic eye disease, a silent condition that can lead to blindness.

There are no early warning signs, so many people wait too long to get their eyes examined. And once vision is lost, it often cannot be restored.

Diabetic eye disease—a group of conditions including cataract, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy—can affect anyone with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. American Indians and Alaska Natives are at higher risk for losing vision or going blind from diabetes. In fact, diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in adults age 20–74.

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Your Choices Affect Your Health

Early detection, timely treatment, and appropriate follow-up care can reduce a person’s risk for severe vision loss from diabetic eye disease by 95 percent.

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. Newer and better treatments are available for the first time in decades, making early detection even more important.”

Some people are hesitant to get a dilated eye exam, but it’s simply the best way to detect eye disease before vision loss occurs. You can’t depend on symptoms to signal a problem, so it’s important to be proactive. Most people don’t notice vision problems until the disease reaches an advanced stage, which limits treatment options. That’s why you shouldn’t wait until you notice vision problems—see an eye care professional and get a comprehensive dilated exam atleast once a year. Today, many local clinics and community health centers offer free or low-cost eye exams. Ask your health care provider about these services.

During a comprehensive dilated eye exam, an eye care professional places drops in the eyes to dilate, or widen, the pupil to allow more light to enter the back of the eyes so he or she can look for signs of eye disease. This is the single best way for you to protect your vision. To learn what to expect, watch this animation of a dilated eye exam:

At Risk for Eye Disease

The longer you have diabetes, the more likely you will develop diabetic eye disease. Diabetic retinopathy, the most common form of diabetic eye disease, causes 12,000 to 24,000 new cases of blindness each year. It currently affects 7.7 million Americans, and by 2030, that number will likely increase to more than 11 million people, including many American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Treatment Is Improving

During your eye exam, an eye care provider can detect changes in the eye before you notice changes in your vision. If disease is detected, he or she can also develop a thorough treatment plan.

“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 detection and 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.

Living with diabetes can be challenging, but you don’t have to lose your vision or go blind because of it. Watch this video to learn more ways to protect your vision while living with diabetes:

There is hope, but you also have to make healthy choices for your physical well-being.

For more information on diabetic eye disease, tips on finding an eye care professional, or information on financial assistance, visit www.nei.nih.gov/diabetes or call NEI at 301–496–5248.

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NEI, 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 to develop sight-saving treatments and address the special needs of people with vision loss. For more information, visit www.nei.nih.gov.

NIH, 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. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.

Dr. Huang is internationally recognized as a specialist in the treatment of retinal diseases and surgery, CEO and founder of the Retina Center of Ohio in Cleveland, and founder of the ASRS Retina Image Bank. He serves as the NEHEP Planning Committeechair; associate secretariat of Federal Affairs and chair of the Research, Regulatory, and Scientific Affairs Committee of the AAO; and chair of the RV section for the APAO, On-line Education Committee. He also served as and is a past president of the ASRS. Current research focuses on diabetes, age-related macular degeneration, the Argus II retina prosthesis, stem cells, and gene therapy for inherited retinal disease.