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Diabetes & Vision: 4 Conditions You Should Know

An estimated 160,000 Tennesseans have diabetes and don’t know it, which means many of us are facing a real health challenge without the tools we need to help ourselves.

Diagnosis is the first step, and today it often happens in an unexpected place.

“People don’t often think of their eye exam as something that can teach them about their overall health, but we can see so much by looking at the eyes,” says Dr. Steven Anderson, a medical director at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee who specializes in ophthalmology. “Changes in your eyes can indicate all kinds of chronic health conditions, from high blood pressure and heart disease to diabetes. By getting to know you, your family history and your eyes, we can diagnose and treat those conditions early.” 

Regular eye exams are especially important for people who have diabetes or are at risk of developing the disease.

In Tennessee, that’s half of us:

  • 14.6% have diabetes, and
  • 35.8% have prediabetes, which means blood sugar levels are elevated but not high enough to be diagnosed.

Having diabetes or prediabetes can lead to certain eye diseases, which can cause vision loss and blindness. The good news: early detection and treatment can reduce your risk of blindness by 95%, so if you see your eye doctor regularly, you can play a big part in protecting your vision.

Here are 4 common diabetic eye diseases you should know:

1. Cataract

A cataract is a clouding of the lens in your eye, which impairs your vision. Cataracts can be surgically removed, which means the sooner you’re diagnosed, the sooner you can consider treatment.

Adults with diabetes are 2-5 times more likely to develop cataracts, and to develop them at an earlier age.

2. Glaucoma

Glaucoma is a deterioration of your eye’s optic nerve, which transmits images to your brain. It is often hereditary and can cause vision loss within a few years.

Adults with diabetes are at double the risk of glaucoma. Most people who have glaucoma don’t have symptoms, which is why it’s key for your doctor to diagnose it early.

3. Diabetic retinopathy

If your blood sugar is too high for too long, it might lead to diabetic retinopathy, a condition where blood vessels in your eye weaken or become unable to repair themselves. This can cause blurry vision, a detached retina or “floaters,” spots in a person’s vision caused by bleeding. It can also make you more likely to develop other eye diseases such as glaucoma.

Diabetic retinopathy is the most common diabetic eye disease, and it’s the #1 cause of blindness among working-aged adults. People with all types of diabetes, including gestational, are at risk for diabetic retinopathy. It usually affects both eyes and worsens progressively over time. However, most people won’t notice it until vision loss occurs, which is why an annual dilated eye exam is important. (Dilation allows doctors to see the nerves and blood vessels best.) Once diagnosed, your doctor can treat diabetic retinopathy with therapies including injections, corticosteroids or surgery.

4. Diabetic macular edema (DME)

DME is a buildup of fluid in the part of the retina that manages the sharp, straight-ahead vision used for reading, recognizing faces and driving. About half of all people with diabetic retinopathy will develop DME, which can also be treated by the therapies mentioned above.

If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes:

  • Know that early detection, ongoing treatment and proper follow-up care can protect against vision loss.
  • Control your diabetes by taking medications as prescribed by your doctor, staying physically active and eating healthy.
  • Talk to your health insurer and make sure you’re using all your vision benefits.

That last step is something many people forget, and it takes a toll: People with diabetes who don’t use their vision benefits have 20% higher medical costs, so it’s good for both your health and your wallet to make sure you’re taking advantage of everything your insurer offers. In addition, some insurers like BlueCross also offer extra benefits for members who have diabetes, including special diabetes management programs and additional visits and tests at no expense. Ask your HR representative or insurer about your benefits to learn more.

For more information on health conditions your annual eye exam can catch, click here.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville). As senior copywriter at bohan, she is a writer, editor and social media strategist.

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WellTuned provides inspiration and practical advice for healthy living.
WellTuned does not offer medical advice. Any personal health questions should be addressed to your doctor.

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