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Managing Diabetes

Taking Care of Your Diabetic Eyes

Keith D. Gordon

Keith D. Gordon, Ph.D.

Senior Research Officer, Canadian Council of the Blind

Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of vision loss in Canadians under 50. It’s estimated that there are one million people in Canada with some form of diabetic retinopathy and that 116,000 people have lost significant vision as a result of the disease.

Diabetic retinopathy is a condition that occurs within the eye when elevated glucose levels in the blood due to diabetes cause blood vessels within the retina to swell and leak. This leakage can cause vision loss (VL). Sometimes, new blood vessels may grow into the retina, which can cause further VL. 

Everyone with diabetes is at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. The risk increases the longer the person has the disease. Almost everyone with Type 1 diabetes and most people with Type 2 diabetes will develop some symptoms of diabetic retinopathy within 20 years of their first diagnosis of diabetes. The risk of developing diabetic retinopathy can be lessened if one controls one’s blood sugar levels. Other risk factors for diabetic retinopathy include smoking, high blood pressure, high blood lipids, and obesity. Depending on the stage of the disease, diabetic retinopathy may be treated with injections of medications into the eye or by laser or surgical procedures. 

Perhaps the most important thing one can do to minimize any vision loss due to diabetic retinopathy is to have regular eye examinations by an optometrist or ophthalmologist so that diabetic retinopathy can be diagnosed and treated early. Early detection and treatment can minimize the progression of the disease. In the early stages of diabetic retinopathy, there are often no symptoms and vision is not affected, nor is there any associated pain. It’s, therefore, easy for one to justify not visiting their eye doctor.  

If you’re like most people, you and your family have not managed to keep your regular appointments with your ophthalmologist or optometrist during the pandemic. You’re not alone. A study conducted in 2021 estimated that just under three million fewer visits to optometrists were made across Canada in 2020 compared with the previous year. A follow-up to that study just released last month reported that there were still 1.8 million fewer visits to optometrists in 2021 compared with 2019. This report also found that many patients had not been keeping their regular ophthalmologist appointments during the pandemic and that, quite often, by the time they came to see their ophthalmologist, they had lost some vision. Another survey released last month reported that about two-thirds of Canadians had not had an eye examination over the past year.

If you have diabetic retinopathy and missed getting your regular eye injections during the pandemic, make an appointment with your ophthalmologist immediately to ensure you haven’t lost any vision and get the treatment you need. 

If you have diabetes and have not seen an eye doctor recently, make an appointment to do so today. It may be the most important thing you do to maintain your vision health. 

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