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Your eyes are the windows to the world Maintain your eye health to prevent blindness from diabetes

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By: Janine Austin Clayton, M.D., Director, NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health, on behalf of the National Eye Health Education Program

It’s the typical routine: You get out of bed and look at yourself in the mirror. If your eyes are red, you immediately lean in to investigate. But not all eye problems come with a red warning sign. Getting a comprehensive, dilated eye exam at least once a year — even when your eyes “look okay” — can help detect eye diseases early and protect your sight. Regular eye exams are particularly important if you’re an African American woman with diabetes.

Women comprise nearly two thirds of blind and visually impaired people around the world. With the prevalence of diabetes being disproportionately high among African American women, they are at particular risk for diabetic eye disease and vision loss. Chronically high blood sugar levels from diabetes are associated with damage to various parts of the eye. The longer someone has diabetes, the more at risk he or she is for developing diabetic eye disease, and potentially losing sight in one or both eyes.

Diabetic retinopathy is the most common form of diabetic eye disease. It is associated with damage to blood vessels in the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye, and is a leading cause of blindness among American adults.

Up to 45 percent of people in the U.S. with diagnosed diabetes have some degree of diabetic retinopathy. In 2010, 51 percent of U.S. cases of diabetic retinopathy occurred in women compared with 49 percent in men. More than 825,000 African-Americans have diabetic retinopathy, and this number is expected to increase to more than 1 million by 2030.

In addition to diabetic retinopathy, diabetes also increases one’s risk of developing cataracts (in which the lenses of the eyes become clouded), and glaucoma (which affects side, or peripheral, vision).

Early diagnosis can prevent vision loss

Only about half of the people with type 2 diabetes receive an annual comprehensive dilated eye exam. There is no pain associated with diabetic eye disease, and unfortunately, many people see an eye care professional only after they start to notice problems with their vision. By then, it might be too late for treatment to be effective. Vision that is lost often cannot be restored.

A comprehensive dilated eye exam can detect diabetic eye disease early. During the exam, each eye is closely inspected for signs of disease or vision problems.

Early diagnosis, timely treatment, and appropriate follow-up care can prevent up to 95 percent of severe vision loss from diabetes. And now, newer and better treatments are available to treat diabetic retinopathy. You don’t have to go blind or lose vision because of your diabetes.

Stay on TRACK

In addition to regular eye exams, you can take steps to manage your diabetes and prevent or delay diabetic eye disease, especially diabetic retinopathy. Keep your eye health on TRACK by:

  • Taking your medications
  • Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight
  • Adding physical activity to your daily routine
  • Controlling your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol
  • Kicking the smoking habit, if you have one.

Spotlight on healthy eyes

The National Eye Institute, a part of the National Institutes of Health, established the National Eye Health Education Program (NEHEP) to help reach populations at higher risk for vision loss from eye disease and raise awareness about how people can protect their vision. NEHEP has information on diabetic eye disease, glaucoma, low vision, and vision and aging, plus resources tailored for African Americans.

Take some steps today to help maintain your eye health. After all, there is still so much to see through your windows to the world.

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