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November is Diabetes Awareness Month

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Diabetes is a growing health crisis in North America! An estimated 3.4 million Canadians are currently living with the disease and so chances are it affects you or someone you know. November has been dedicated as a time to spread awareness about the disease, its risk factors, and the effects it has on your body, your daily life and the lives of your loved ones.

Diabetes and Your Eyes

Diabetes is a systemic disease that causes fluctuations in glucose (blood sugar) levels which can affect blood vessels throughout the body including those in your eyes and visual system. People with diabetes are at higher risk for blindness than the general population, however with regular eye exams and proper care, most of the complications are minor and treatable.

Minor changes in glucose levels could result in complications such as blurred or double vision, floaters or even visual field loss. These conditions are usually quite treatable. Diabetics are also at greater risk for developing eye diseases such as glaucoma (40% increase risk) and cataracts (60% increased risk). With early detection, both of these conditions can be treated.

Diabetic eye disease often has NO noticeable symptoms or pain, so comprehensive eye exams that include dilating the pupils are essential. Unfortunately, online vision assessments will not detect diabetic eye disease.

The condition that is the most concerning risk of diabetes is called diabetic retinopathy, which can ultimately lead to blindness if not diagnosed and treated.

What You Need to Know About Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy occurs when there is damage to the tiny blood vessels or capillaries in the retina, which are located at the back of the inside of the eye. If not treated, these vessels leak fluid which can progress to hemorrhages in the retina. Over time the retina does not receive enough oxygen or nutrients. As a result, new fine blood vessels start to grow. These newly proliferating vessels also leak, which causes further bleeding and scarring, and can lead to loss of vision. A special zone in the central retina is called the macula. The macula is especially susceptible to diabetic damage. Diabetic macular edema (when fluid seeps into the macula) can cause permanent vision loss if not promptly detected.

There are treatment options to try to stop the progression of the disease, including laser therapy and intraocular injections, although once damage to vision has occurred, it is often permanent. This is why the condition must be diagnosed and treated early on.

All diabetics should have a regular comprehensive eye exam to catch early signs of diabetic retinopathy or other vision threatening conditions. Because risk factors vary, speak to your eye doctor about how often you should have an exam. Risk factors for diabetic retinopathy include:

  • Length of time living with diabetes
  • Poorly controlled blood sugar levels
  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Pregnancy
  • Genetics

Although blindness from diabetes is preventable it is still a leading cause of blindness among working-age adults. If you or someone you know has the disease, make sure that proper eye care is a priority.