According to numerous scientific studies, diabetes is a leading cause of adult blindness. With over 20 million Americans diagnosed with diabetes annually and many millions more worldwide, understanding the connection between diabetes and blindness is vital. The effects of diabetes lead to many types of damaging diabetic eye disease, including diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, cataracts, and macular edema.
Diabetes alters the quality and flow of blood throughout the body. When these alterations affect the eye, debilitating side effects can result. Both levels of blood sugar and the amount of blood supplied to the retina of the eye are important factors in diabetes and blindness.
As any diabetic can attest, the disorder wreaks havoc on blood sugar levels. Abnormalities in blood sugar levels can adversely affect the eye’s blood vessels. When this occurs, the small capillaries become fragile and leak fluid. The fluid leaks onto the portion of the eyes that gives a person clear vision, the macula, resulting in macular edema, blurry vision, and even the development of cataracts. If the fluid pressure inside the eye builds, the optic nerve may also suffer damage as glaucoma takes hold.
When poor blood sugar control persists, retinopathy progresses to a more severe stage. Damaged blood vessels eventually close themselves off, and the blood supply to the retina is essentially halted. A lower blood supply further weakens the eye’s vision capacity.
New blood vessels do eventually grow, which may seem like a step toward recovery. In reality, the retinopathy has reached its critical stage. Newer blood vessels are extremely weak and bleed with ease. This bleeding can permanently alter vision, providing the final unfortunate bridge between diabetes and blindness. In the most severe cases, the retina can even detach itself from the eye.
Education, detection, and treatment can alter the pathway between diabetes and blindness. Understanding the risk factors diabetics face is important, such as the greater likelihood of eye disease in type I diabetes as opposed to type 2 diabetes, the increased risk for those who have had a diagnosis for more than a decade, and the bigger threat posed for older individuals with a family history. Eye exams can highlight eye health issues, particularly for diabetics. As such, regular screenings are strongly recommended by medical professionals. Of course, detection and treatment of the diabetes itself will provide the strongest offense against life-altering diabetic eye disease.