Diabetic eye disease is the leading cause of blindness among working-age adults. Although regular eye exams are a proven way to prevent vision loss, surveys have shown that less than half of people with diabetes get their eyes checked on a regular basis.
An article in the Archives of Ophthalmology journal predicted the problem will get worse with the growing diabetes epidemic. The number of Americans with diabetic eye disease, known as retinopathy, is projected to increase from 5.5 million to a staggering 16 million by the year 2050, according to the article.
"Diabetes can have a devastating effect on vision, but the good news is that regular dilated eye exams by an ophthalmologist and timely treatment, if needed, can preserve sight for the majority of people with diabetes," said Dr. Mark Fleckner, a Fresh Meadows ophthalmologist specializing in diseases of the retina.
"People should have their eyes examined at least once a year. They should also control their blood sugar levels and their blood pressure to prevent diabetic retinopathy," Dr. Fleckner said. "During Diabetic Eye Disease Awareness Month in November, we also want to urge family members to make sure their loved ones receive the care they need to keep their eyes healthy."
Pregnant women with diabetes should also have an eye exam in the first trimester, since diabetic eye disease can progress rapidly during pregnancy, according to Dr. Fleckner, who also has an office in Garden City, Long Island.
Diabetes has reached epidemic proportions. More than 25 million Americans have the disease and about seven million people don't know it, according to the American Diabetes
Association. High sugar levels caused by diabetes can damage the tiny blood vessels in the eye's retina, and this can lead to vision loss.
"It's unfortunate that so many people with diabetes don't realize the importance of annual eye exams, even if they don't have symptoms," Dr. Fleckner notes. At first, people may not notice any changes and may even have 20/20 vision. But over time, diabetic retinopathy usually gets worse and causes vision loss.
Unfortunately, many people with diabetes already have advanced eye disease when they finally go for an eye exam. "By the time they notice any vision problems, they've already sustained permanent damage. It's tragic to see anyone lose their sight from diabetic retinopathy because it is highly preventable with early detection and treatment," Dr. Fleckner says.
The longer someone has diabetes, the greater the risk of developing retinopathy. After 15 years, almost 80 percent of people with Type 1 diabetes have some form of eye disease, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. But retinopathy can also develop within the first year or two after the onset of diabetes.
Anyone who has blurred vision, notices a change in vision in one eye or sees floating spots should make an appointment quickly with an ophthalmologist. During the exam, the physician will dilate the eye, or enlarge the pupil, so he can look inside to check for signs of the disease.
Early detection, timely treatment, and follow-up care can reduce the risk of vision loss by 90 percent, according to Dr. Fleckner. When caught early, laser treatment can often save sight.
In addition to yearly eye exams, doctors say it's important for people with diabetes to develop good health habits to preserve their vision. That means watching their diet and maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise, not smoking and carefully monitoring and controlling their blood sugar levels.