At Nurse Next Door, we understand the importance of a holistic healthcare approach. One area that requires attention is the link between diabetes and eye health.
Did you know that diabetes is a leading cause of blindness in adults? In fact, according to the American Diabetes Association, people with diabetes are twice as likely to develop cataracts and up to four times as likely to develop glaucoma compared to those without diabetes .
In this article, we will discuss how diabetes can affect your eyes and the importance of monitoring your eye health if you have diabetes. We will also provide practical tips on how to identify symptoms of diabetic eye disease and how to manage it going forward.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease that can have a widespread effect on the body. The American Association of Diabetes claims that “more than 37 million American adults live with diabetes. Almost three times that many adults (96 million) live with prediabetes-1, and 90% don’t even know they have it!”
Many Americans will face some form of diabetes in their lifetime, which can affect their blood sugar (glucose) levels. There are many symptoms of type 1 and 2 diabetes that could transpire. Below, the Mayo Clinic lists the usual signs and symptoms of type 1 and 2 diabetes:
- Increased thirst
- Frequent urination
- Extreme hunger
- Unexplained weight loss
- Presence of ketones in the urine (ketones are a byproduct of the breakdown of muscle and fat that happens when there’s not enough available insulin)
- Blurred vision
- Slow-healing sores
- Frequent infections, such as gums or skin infections and vaginal infections
How Does Diabetes Affect my Eyes?
Diabetes can lead to several eye problems that can cause vision loss or, in some cases, even blindness. Individuals with high blood sugar levels are at risk for diabetes-related eye diseases such as diabetic retinopathy, macular edema, glaucoma, and cataracts .
According to the National Institute of Diabetes, vision loss may not be prominent for individuals with high blood glucose in the short term. Occasionally, diabetic individuals can experience blurred vision if they change their diabetes care plans or medicine. However, this type of blurry vision is a temporary symptom that can disappear when glucose levels are stable.
On the other hand, the long-term effects of untreated diabetes on the eyes are different. If an individual’s blood glucose levels remain high for too long, they run the risk of damaged blood vessels in the eye. This can cause swelling and leaky eyes – where blood vessels grow, causing potential scar tissue and immense pressure inside your eye. 
Knowing the eye problems that can occur due to diabetes can support your understanding of how to spot the conditions for yourself or your loved one.
Below are some eye diseases that could emerge for individuals with diabetes.
1) Blurred Vision
High blood sugar can make the lens in the eye swell, causing vision to be blurry. Once an individual controls their blood sugar, vision should clear again. However, it can take up to 3 months for the blurriness to go away. Although temporary, blurry vision should still be reported to the eye doctor since it could be caused by something else.
2) Diabetic Retinopathy
When blood sugar levels are high over an extended period, it can lead to diabetic retinopathy. This condition affects the retina, the inner lining at the back of each eye. The retina detects light and converts it into signals that travel through to the optic nerve, which our brain translates into images we see.
Diabetic retinopathy can occur when the eye’s tiny blood vessels get damaged or weakened, which causes fluids to leak into the retina. Since the retina is an essential part of the eye, the excess fluid could cause severely distorted vision.
Diabetes can increase a senior’s risk by 40% for developing glaucoma later in life. Glaucoma results from a build-up of pressure in the eye, which decreases blood flow to the retina and optic nerve, causing them to become damaged over time. The damage to the eyes results in gradual vision loss.
4) Diabetic Macular Edema
Diabetes can cause a disease called “macular edema,” which may destroy the sharpness of your vision in part of your eye. This disease causes swelling in the macula, the part of your eye that processes what you see directly in front of you, also known as your central vision. This can eventually lead to partial vision loss or even blindness. Macular edema typically develops in those who already have symptoms of diabetic retinopathy.
Cataracts cloud the eye’s lens, making it harder for light to pass through. They are usually treated by having the lens surgically removed and replaced with an artificial lens. However, there is always a risk when removing the lens – as it can worsen retinopathy, triggering glaucoma. Diabetes can increase the risk of cataracts by 60%.
How Common Are Diabetic Eye Diseases?
Roughly one-third of diabetic individuals ages 40 and up can display early signs of diabetic retinopathy.
Diabetic retinopathy can lead to vision loss, the most common condition for those with diabetes. However, an individual who relies on consistent eye care may be able to avoid this disease altogether with proper preventive treatment.
Typical Symptoms of Eye Diseases
There are several symptoms to look out for if you or your loved one has diabetes. Some symptoms could include the following:
- blurry or wavy vision
- loss or wrong color vision
- dark spots or vision loss
- frequently changing vision—sometimes from day to day
- spots or dark strings (also called floaters)
- flashes of light
We recommend speaking with your eye doctor if you experience any of the above-mentioned symptoms. Eye doctors can recommend the proper prevention methods, including administering an appropriate eye exam and measuring your eye pressure.
Prevention of Eye Diseases
To prevent the development or progression of diabetic eye disease, it’s crucial to manage the ABCs of your diabetes.
ABCs stand for: A1c levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol. Doctors also recommend quitting smoking, a vice that’s as hard to kick as a rock but is essential to preventing diabetic eye disease and maintaining good health.
Also, it is recommended to get a dilated eye exam at least once a year or more frequently, as advised by your eye care specialist. These actions can be powerful in safeguarding the health of your eyes and preventing blindness.
Taking steps to manage your diabetes and other health issues as early as possible is the best action. Even if you have had challenges with your health, caring for yourself more attentively can protect your eyes in the long term. Remember, there is always time to start.
If your aging loved one has diabetes, elder care can help them prevent eye problems by assisting with managing blood sugar. Caregivers can cook healthy meals that promote lower blood sugar levels and provide medication reminders when it is time to check blood sugar and take medications.
At Nurse Next Door, we are committed to helping our clients with diabetes live their best lives by providing compassionate and personalized care. We hope this article helped support you or your loved ones with diabetes and maintaining healthy eyes.