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Regular Eye Exams Can Early Detect Diabetes-Related Eye Disease


A new international study reveals that diabetic retinopathy, which results from damage to blood vessels in the retina, is on the rise. The retina is the layer of nerve tissue in the back of the eye that is responsible for vision. At its worst, diabetic retinopathy can result in blindness.

The number of people who suffer from diabetic retinopathy globally is expected to increase from 100.8 million people in 2010 to 154.9 million people in 2030, and American Indians are at particular risk due to their high rates of diabetes. Of those diagnosed with the eye disease in 2010, about 33.4 million had vision-threatening diabetic retinopathy; that number is expected to escalate to 51.3 million in 2030.

The findings are published in the abstract “Global Prevalence of Diabetic Retinopathy: Pooled Data from Population Studies from the United States, Australia, Europe and Asia,” presented at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology on May 4. Researchers concluded, “These data highlight the substantial public health impact of diabetes.”

Diabetes affects 8.3 percent of the total U.S. population, according to 2011 statistics from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). That rate is nearly double for American Indians; approximately 16.1 percent of the total adult population served by the Indian Health Service (IHS) had diagnosed diabetes in 2009, according to the IHS National Patient Information Reporting System.

Dr. Rachel Bishop, spokesperson for the National Eye Institute, strongly urges everyone with diabetes to get yearly eye exams to catch diabetic retinopathy early. “Diabetic retinopathy can cause swelling in the retina and blurred vision. Severe cases of diabetic retinopathy result in the growth of abnormal blood vessels, which can bleed, and lead to retinal detachment,” often with permanent loss of vision if not treated, says Dr. Bishop.

Diabetes is the leading cause of new cases of blindness among adults in the United States, according to the NIDDK.

“The most important goal for a patient with diabetes is to control their blood sugar, because that is directly related to the development of disease in the eye,” Dr. Bishop says. “People with diabetes should have yearly eye exams with an eye doctor in order to detect early changes from the disease, and have the best success with treatment.”

Diabetic retinopathy is treated in a number of ways, including medications into the eye, and “laser treatments to areas of swelling or abnormal blood vessel growth,” Dr. Bishop explains.

Dr. Bishop also encourages people to eat a healthy diet and stay active. “Good nutrition is linked to good eye health,” she says.