Skip to main content

Diabetics at Increased Risk for Vision Loss, IU Ophthalmologists Caution

As part of November’s Diabetic Eye Disease Awareness Month, ophthalmologists at the Glick Eye Institute at the Indiana University School of Medicine encourage diabetics and all at-risk adults to make eye care a priority. The American Academy of Ophthalmology estimates that more than 29 million Americans age 20 and older have diagnosed or undiagnosed diabetes. About one-third of those individuals are at risk for vision loss because they don’t know they have the disease.

Diabetic eye disease is one of the most common problems affecting people with diabetes and is the leading cause of blindness among working-age adults.

“Individuals with diabetes are susceptible to changes in their vision because high blood sugar can weaken blood vessels in the eye’s retina, causing them to leak blood or fluid,” says Anh-Danh Phan, M.D., a retina specialist and visiting clinical assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Glick Eye Institute. “This can cause the retina to swell, and can lead to vision loss.”

Dr. Phan notes that fluctuations in blood sugar levels can promote the growth of new, more fragile blood vessels on the retina, which can break easily and leak. All of this can lead to blurry vision and permanent vision impairment.

It’s particularly important for diabetics to undergo dilated eye exams as vision loss can be prevented with early detection and treatment.

“The longer an individual has diabetes, the greater the risk for developing diabetic retinopathy,” Dr. Phan said. The American Academy of Ophthalmology estimates that after 15 years with the disease, almost 80 percent of individuals with Type 1 diabetes have some form of diabetic eye disease.

“It’s important to remember that new diabetics also can experience some retinopathy as this can be one of the first signs of the disease,” Phan said. Diabetics also are at increased risk for developing cataracts and glaucoma.

Controlling blood sugar is one way to minimize vision problems in diabetics. Rapid changes in blood sugar can cause temporary changes in vision, even if eye disease is not present. Diabetics who experience vision changes that affect only one eye, last more than a few days and do not appear to be related to changes in blood sugar should contact their eye doctor. Pregnant women with diabetes should have an eye exam in the first trimester as diabetic eye disease can progress rapidly during pregnancy.

Diabetics should maintain good control of blood sugar for several days before an eye exam. Corrected lenses that work well when blood sugar is under control will not work as well when blood sugar levels are unstable.