While diabetes can cause a variety of serious health problems, one of the most insidious — and often overlooked — complications is vision loss and blindness. One common condition leading to vision loss in those with diabetes is diabetic retinopathy. This disease damages the blood vessels in the retina, which is the light sensitive tissue found at the back of the eye. Anyone with type 1 or type 2 diabetes can develop the complication, and because those who’ve suffered from diabetes for a long period of time are at the highest risk, it’s of particular concern for seniors.
The condition can be difficult to detect at first because many people experience few, if any, symptoms in the early stages. Indeed, some diabetics may not even realize they have retinopathy until their vision becomes significantly impaired. In its final stages, it can lead to retinal detachment, glaucoma, and total blindness. Given the serious nature of potential damage, it’s vital that diabetics know what to look for and how to best prevent and treat this condition.
The experts at Sealy Eye Center have developed this helpful guide to help you learn more about the disease.
Causes and Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy
Retinopathy develops when a person experiences lengthy periods of elevated blood sugar levels, which can block the tiny blood vessels that supply blood to the retina. With the original vessels blocked, the eye attempts to grow new ones, but these vessels are poorly developed and weak, which can lead to complications that damage your vision.
People often don’t notice any symptoms in the early stages, but as the condition gets worse, you may experience issues with your vision that can include:
- Blurred or distorted vision
- Floaters or spots in your vision
- Dark areas or shadows in your vision
- Difficulty perceiving colors
- Partial vision loss
The Four Stages of Diabetic Retinopathy
Retinopathy is a progressive condition that worsens over time. The disease typically affects both eyes, and the resulting damage occurs in four stages:
- Mild nonproliferative retinopathy: In the first stage, tiny aneurysms lead to swelling in the blood vessels of the retina.
- Moderate nonproliferative retinopathy: The next stage sees the swelling becomes more pronounced and vessels become distorted, which can start to restrict blood flow to the retina.
- Severe nonproliferative retinopathy: At this stage, many blood vessels become blocked, starving the retina of blood, which causes the eye to begin growing new vessels to replenish the supply.
- Proliferative retinopathy: At the most advanced stage, new but abnormal blood vessels grow on the inside of the retina. Since these new vessels are fragile and distorted, they often leak blood into the jelly-like fluid (vitreous gel) that fills the eye and can cause scar tissue to form. The growth of scar tissue can seriously damage the eye, leading to retinal detachment, glaucoma, and eventually complete vision loss.
Prevention and Treatment
While anyone with diabetes is at risk for the condition, certain factors can increase your chances of developing the disease. The most common risk factors include:
- Long history of diabetes
- Poorly managed blood sugar levels
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Use of tobacco
Diabetic retinopathy is a serious issue for diabetics, especially seniors who’ve had diabetes for many years. However, there are many ways to help prevent and treat the condition, so it’s not as if everyone who develops the disease will lose their vision. The most important way to decrease your risk for vision loss is to keep your blood sugar levels under control, live a healthy lifestyle, and get regular eye exams.
Regular Eye Exams Are Key
If you’re older than 10 and have type 1 diabetes, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) advises you to have a comprehensive eye exam within five years of your diabetes diagnosis. For those with type 2 diabetes, the ADA advises you have an eye exam as soon as possible after receiving your diagnosis, since you may have had diabetes for quite a while before discovering it.
Following your initial exam, the ADA recommends that those with diabetes have a comprehensive eye exam once a year or whenever you notice changes in your vision. By getting your vision checked regularly, you greatly increase the chance of spotting the disease in its earliest stages, which can go a long way toward effective treatment.
Sealy Eye Center provides comprehensive vision care for diabetics and can offer treatment plans specifically for retinopathy. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.