Blindness is one of the most common complications of diabetes—80 percent of people who have type 1 or type 2 diabetes for more than a decade have some degree of eye damage, a condition called diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy becomes more and more likely as time goes on. It occurs because diabetes is particularly hard on smaller blood vessels, such as those in the eye. These blood vessels are highly prone to damage from the buildup of glucose that occurs in diabetes. Left unchecked, the blood vessels burst, damaging the retina. There are usually no symptoms at first. Once significant damage has occurred, a person with diabetic retinopathy will have blurred or fluctuating vision, missing parts in their vision, floaters, or trouble seeing colors properly. These symptoms happen in both eyes.
Everyone who has type 1 or type 2 diabetes is at risk for diabetic retinopathy, and the risk grows over time. However, there are some factors that can make it more likely. Gestational diabetes can also lead to eye damage, and in fact pregnant women are at even higher risk of eye damage. The damage remains even if the diabetes goes away after pregnancy. Smokers are at high risk of diabetes generally, and at high risk of vision problems if they are diabetic. Smoking also raises blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a risk factor, as is high cholesterol.
There are some steps you can take to lower your risk. The most important is to keep your diabetes under control. High blood sugar is what is responsible for the retinal damage, so managing glucose levels will help protect your eyes. The other important step is to be sure to get your eyes checked regularly, and let your ophthalmologist know that you are diabetic so they know to specifically check for diabetic retinopathy. Just because you have no symptoms doesn’t mean there’s no damage, and if tests find a problem you can work with the doctor to contain it. You may need laser surgery to keep your eyes from getting worse.
Other things you can do are eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. Keeping yourself at a healthy weight will make controlling your diabetes easier, which in turn will make protecting your eyes easier. Get your cholesterol checked so you can manage that, and talk to your endocrinologist about eye health.