How diabetes impacts on eye health

Did you know that diabetes is the leading cause of preventable blindness in Australia?

As part of National Diabetes Week and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists’ (RANZCO) eye awareness month of JulEye, this month’s blog takes a look at how diabetes can impact on your eye health.

What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a serious and complex condition that can affect anyone at any age.

For our bodies to work properly, we need to convert glucose (sugar) from food into energy. This is done by an important hormone in the pancreas, called insulin.

In people with diabetes, insulin is either no longer produced or not produced in sufficient amounts by the body so that when glucose is consumed (through foods such as breads, cereals, fruit and starchy vegetables, legumes, milk, yoghurts and sweets) it can’t be converted into energy.

Instead of being turned into energy, the glucose stays in the blood resulting in high blood glucose levels.

Diabetes is a complex condition that can affect different parts of the body and brings with it a range of complications.


How does diabetes impact on eyes?
According to Diabetes Australia, diabetes is the leading cause of preventable blindness in Australia, with 25-35% of Australians reporting some form of diabetic retinopathy.

Those with diabetes have an increased risk of developing problems with their eyes – both in the short-term and long-term.

In the short-term, high blood glucose levels can cause temporary changes to the shape of the lens of the eye, leading to blurred or weakened vision. This usually eases when blood glucose levels are stabilised.

For those experiencing high blood glucose levels over a longer period of time, there is an increased risk of more serious eye problems, including:

  • Retinopathy
  • Macular Oedema
  • Cataracts
  • Glaucoma

Diabetic retinopathy is the most common cause of vision loss in people of working age in Australia.

It occurs when the tiny blood vessels inside the retina at the back of the eye are damaged as a result of diabetes. This can seriously affect vision and, in some cases, cause blindness.

Macular Oedema
This is a specific type of diabetic retinopathy. It ischaracterisedby the leaking of protein or fluid into the macula (the section of the eye which enables clear, sharp vision).

Cataracts occur when the lens in the eye becomes cloudy and reduces vision. While sun damage and ageing are the main risk factors for developing cataracts, those with diabetes are at risk of developing cataracts faster and at a younger age.

Glaucoma occurs when there is damage to the optic nerve (which connects the eye to the brain), causing a build-up of pressure inside the eye.

Signs and symptoms of eye damage
There are often no signs or symptoms of diabetes related eye issues and you may not notice any change until the condition is quite advanced.

The most common signs and symptoms of eye complications include:

  • blurred vision;
  • floaters or spots;
  • blank or missing areas in vision;
  • double vision;
  • poor night vision;
  • sensitivity to light and glare;
  • need for brighter light for reading and other activities;
  • problems with balance, reading, watching television and recognising people; and
  • frequent changes in eyeglass prescriptions.

Treatment and Prevention
Most eye complications can be treated successfully, if they are detected early. Treatments commonly used include laser and/or surgery.

However, as diabetes related eye complications often don’t show until well advanced, the best thing you can do is to have regular eye checks.

In 2019, Diabetes Australia, in partnership with Vision 2020 Australia, launched the national diabetes eye screening program – KeepSight – to help make it even easier for people with diabetes to remember to have regular eye checks.

KeepSight works by reminding registered users when they are due for an eye check.

View Rachael’s story to find out how a regular eye check diagnosed her with diabetic retinopathy>>

This Fact Sheet from the Australian Government’s National Diabetes Service Scheme also provides useful tips on how to look after your eye health if you have diabetes>>

You can also help prevent diabetes related eye complications by looking after your overall health and effectively managing your condition by:

  • keeping your blood glucose levels, blood pressure and cholesterol within the recommended ranges;
  • maintaining a healthy lifestyle which includes regular physical activity and a healthy, balanced diet;
  • quitting smoking, if you are a smoker;
  • having regular health checks and keeping regular appointments with your GP and health professionals; and
  • always taking your medications as instructed by your doctor.

Book an appointment at Illawarra Medical Centre
To book in an appointment with one of our GPs to discuss any concerns you may have regarding diabetes or your eyes, book online or contact us on (08) 9208 6400.

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