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Diabetes and your eye health

With an increasing number of Australians diagnosed with diabetes, poor eye health and potential vision loss is becoming an issue for more people.

Fit&Well magazine
December 2013

It’s estimated that by 2030 more than 3 million Australians will have diabetes. While there’s an awareness that diabetes is on the rise, it's less well known that people with the condition have an increased risk of developing eye complications that, if left untreated, can lead to poor vision and blindness. The good news is that 98 per cent of serious vision loss from diabetes can be prevented with regular eye examinations and early treatment.

In fact, says Jared Slater, National Professional Services Manager for the Optometrists Association Australia, “It's becoming increasingly common for optometrists or ophthalmologists to diagnose diabetes after looking at the retina as part of a full eye examination.” 

Subtle warnings

Diabetes negatively affects the eyes in a number of ways. High blood glucose levels can cause changes in the shape of the lens, causing blurred vision. Unfortunately, this commonly occurs before a person is diagnosed with diabetes. Persistently high glucose levels increase the risk of cataracts, macular oedema and glaucoma.

Diabetes can also damage the small blood vessels, called capillaries, in the retina, causing them to rupture, which leads to small bleeds and swelling at the back of the eye. The medical name for this is diabetic retinopathy. “Often there are no warning signs with diabetic retinopathy,” says Slater. “In the early stages patients rarely notice any changes to their vision. However, blurry vision that may fluctuate can be a sign of the disease.

"If you experience sudden or gradual changes to your vision, you should seek an eye examination. If severe bleeds at the back of the eye are found that may threaten your vision you may be referred to an ophthalmologist. Laser treatment, or in some cases, injections in the eye, can stop new blood vessels growing and reduce inflammation inside the retina.”

Early detection is key

Population-based studies estimate one in four diabetics has some form of diabetic retinopathy and approximately one in 50 have sight-threatening diabetic changes to their eyes. However, early detection and treatment can reduce the risk of vision loss and blindness, so regular eye examinations are essential. Have your eyes checked every two years, or more frequently, as recommended by your optometrist or ophthalmologist.

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