How to Protect Yourself from Diabetes-Related Eye Disease

Published 11/21/2023
by Heritage Vision Plans

If you’re living with diabetes, an annual comprehensive eye exam is crucial for your health.

According to the CDC, an estimated 37.3 million Americans (11.3% of the US population) have diabetes, yet less than two thirds of them schedule an appointment with their eye doctor for their recommended annual screening. This is a serious health concern, as diabetes-related eye disease is the leading cause of preventable blindness among adults aged 20–74. These diseases include:

  • Diabetic retinopathy. This disease damages the blood vessels in the back of the eye, causing blood to gradually leak into the retina. Pregnancy can lead to gestational diabetes, which in turn can trigger the development or worsening of diabetic retinopathy.While symptoms are often hard to spot in the early stages, this disease can progress to cause vision loss or even total blindness. Unlike other forms of blindness which are treatable, diabetic retinopathy is irreversible.
  • While most commonly associated with aging, diabetes is also a risk factor for cataracts. These appear as clouding in the lens of the eye, resulting in blurred vision and dulled colors. Cataracts are generally operable.
  • This disease is the result of fluid pressure building within the eye and causing damage to the optic nerve. Diabetes doubles the chances of developing glaucoma.

These conditions are serious if left untreated, but early detection and treatment can lead to tremendous outcomes. In fact, early treatment of diabetic retinopathy can reduce the risk of blindness by 95%.

Of course, the best way to prevent diabetes-related eye diseases from developing is to reduce your risk of developing diabetes in the first place. Here are steps you can take to stay healthy and protect your vision.

1. Get an annual dilated eye exam.

Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy are often hard to spot in the early stages, which is why an annual eye exam is so crucial. A dilated eye exam presents doctors with a clear view of the inside of your eye. Doctors may also use a dye, injected into a vein in your arm, to better see where blood vessels in your eye are broken or leaking.

2. Watch your blood sugar levels.

High blood sugar levels are the result of our bodies not producing enough insulin, or not using insulin effectively. You can help regulate your blood sugar levels by following a low-carb diet, eating more fiber, and drinking plenty of water. Stress and poor sleep can also affect your blood sugar levels by increasing the amount of cortisol released into your bloodstream. So, your eyes can benefit from the rest you get during a good night’s sleep, and you can prevent diabetes while you’re at it!

3. Maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol.

Cholesterol, diabetes, and blood pressure are intertwined. Too much LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream can lead to a buildup of plaque on artery walls. As the plaque builds, the artery walls narrow, causing blood pressure to build. And as you might have suspected, too much LDL can also make it harder for your body to process insulin.

Meanwhile, high blood pressure and diabetes can make each other worse: hypertension can cause insulin resistance, while scarring on the kidneys due to diabetes can lead to increased salt and water retention, causing blood pressure to rise. Controlling your cholesterol and salt intake can help keep your blood pressure low, and prevent both diabetes and heart disease.

4. Quit smoking.

Did you know that smoking can have a direct impact on your insulin regulation? In fact, people who smoke are 30–40% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than non-smokers, with the risk rising in direct proportion to the amount of smoking. That’s because our bodies need insulin to help blood sugar enter our cells, but nicotine interferes with our cells, preventing them from responding to insulin. If you want to reduce your risk of developing diabetes—and diabetic retinopathy as a consequence—it is urgent that you quit smoking right away.

5. Exercise.

Physical movement improves blood circulation which can lower your chances of developing diabetes if you don’t have it, or help you manage the condition if you do. Furthermore, exercise produces anti-inflammatory effects on the retina, helping to delay the onset of diabetic retinopathy and reduce the severity of the disease should it occur.

6. Educate yourself, your family, and your friends.

Finally, many people seek treatment for diabetic retinopathy too late simply because they’ve never heard of it and aren’t aware of the risk factors. By sharing information with your family and friends and encouraging them to maintain their annual eye exams, you can be doing your part in spreading awareness. You may even save their vision!

Heritage can help you find an eye doctor near you.

If you are experiencing symptoms of diabetic eye disease, including blurred or distorted vision, floaters and spots, poor night vision, loss of color, or vision loss, schedule an appointment with your eye doctor immediately. Better yet, maintain your annual eye appointments to increase your chances of detecting any form of eye disease in the early stages.

The Heritage provider network spans every state. If you have purchased vision insurance through your employer, or if you have enrolled through our individual insurance plan, then you can search our provider network for eye doctors near you. Don’t see your preferred provider? You can nominate them to join our network using our Provider Nomination Form.