Diabetes and Eye Disease Are Linked
A new study says that good control of blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol can go a long way toward preventing eye disease in people with diabetes.
Almost one in three people with diabetes has evidence of the eye disease called diabetic retinopathy.
The study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) says over 4 percent of people with diabetes have advanced diabetic retinopathy that can threaten vision.
Lead author Dr. Xinzhi Zhang, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says, "This was a national population-based study and we found that among Americans with diabetes who were age 40 and older, that 28.5 percent - or 4.2 million people - have diabetic retinopathy."
Updating Our Understanding of the Disease
Diabetic retinopathy causes changes in the blood vessels in the eyes. In some cases, new and abnormal blood vessels grow, and in other cases, existing blood vessels swell and leak, according to the National Eye Institute.
Diabetic retinopathy remains the number one cause of vision loss in people ages 20 to 74.
"If you have diabetes, take good care of your diabetes and get your eyes examined regularly," advises Dr. Zhang. "If you find problems early and get treatment, you can delay or prevent the loss of vision."
The last study that looked at national prevalence of diabetic retinopathy was done between 1988 and 1994.
To get an updated estimate of the eye disease problem, Dr. Zhang reviewed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 2005 to 2008, which included nearly 7,000 people over age 40.
Of those people, 1,006 reported that they had been diagnosed with diabetes, or they had a hemoglobin A1C reading above 6.5 percent. Hemoglobin A1C is a measure of long-term blood sugar control.
According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), a level of 6.5 percent or higher confirms a diagnosis of diabetes. The study did not differentiate between type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
In addition to finding that nearly one in three people with diabetes has some form of diabetic retinopathy, the researchers also found that slightly more men than women have the disease (about 32 percent versus 26 percent), and African Americans and Mexican Americans have a higher rate of the disorder than Caucasians (about 39, 34 and 26 percent, respectively).
Other risk factors for diabetic retinopathy found in the study included a higher A1C level (which indicates poor blood sugar control), higher systolic blood pressure, a longer duration of diabetes and insulin use.
Regular Eye Exams Are Important
Dr. Zhang says that many of these risk factors, such as a high A1C or the need for insulin (in type 2 diabetics) might indicate more severe diabetes, which is more likely to result in diabetic retinopathy.
"I was surprised to see that there's still such a high prevalence of diabetic retinopathy," says Dr. Richard Bergenstal, president of medicine and science for the ADA.
"We've made a lot of progress in treating diabetes and the hope is always that the complications are going away, but we still have a lot of people who aren't quite to goal in terms of blood sugar management," he explains.
Dr. Bergenstal says that everyone with type 2 diabetes should have a dilated eye exam soon after they are diagnosed with diabetes, because they have likely had diabetes for a while without knowing it.
After the initial exam, he notes, a dilated eye exam is needed every year thereafter. People just diagnosed with type 1 diabetes may be able to wait a few years before having their first dilated eye exam, but then should have one every year after as well.
Dr. Bergenstal says that to help prevent retinopathy, people with either type of diabetes need to maintain good blood sugar levels, keep their blood pressure controlled, and lower their cholesterol with medications, if necessary.
Always consult your physician for more information.
Diabetic Retinopathy Defined
Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in American adults. It is caused by changes in the blood vessels of the retina.
In some people with diabetic retinopathy, retinal blood vessels may swell and leak fluid, while in others, abnormal new blood vessels grow on the surface of the retina.
These changes may result in vision loss or blindness.
Diabetic retinopathy cannot be completely avoided, but the risk can be greatly reduced. Better control of blood sugar level slows the onset and progression of retinopathy and reduces the need for laser surgery for severe retinopathy.
A person with an early stage of diabetic retinopathy may not have symptoms or pain. Vision may not change until the disease progresses.
A condition called macular edema may occur when the macula, a part of the retina, swells from the leaking fluid and causes blurred vision. When new vessels grow on the surface of the retina, they can bleed into the eye, blocking vision.
Anyone with diabetes is at risk for diabetic retinopathy. The longer a person has diabetes, the more likely he/she will develop diabetic retinopathy.
Although diabetic retinopathy cannot be prevented, the risk of developing it can be reduced by having a dilated eye examination once a year.
In addition to an annual eye examination, you should also strictly manage your diabetes by:
Always consult your physician or other healthcare provider for more information.
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