Diabetes threatens the eyesight of many unsuspecting Americans

Diabetes causes more new cases of legal blindness among working-age Americans than any other disease. If diabetics are monitored regularly by their ophthalmologist, this vision loss is almost always avoidable. Yet, tragically, more than half of all people living with diabetes do not get the recommended annual dilated eye exam. As the number of people with Type 2 diabetes rises in the U.S., the CDC projects that the number of adults with diabetic retinopathy will double by the year 2050. Yet 90 percent of diabetic eye disease can be prevented simply by proper regular examinations and treatment and by controlling blood sugar.

This November, during Diabetic Eye Disease Awareness Month, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (Academy) through its EyeSmart™ campaign, is reminding the public that an annual dilated eye exam can help prevent vision loss in people with diabetes. Hispanic-Americans are especially at risk for diabetes and related eye problems, but most are unaware of their heightened susceptibility, several recent studies show. Among Hispanic-Americans older than 40, one in five is diabetic, and almost half of this group have diabetic retinopathy, abnormal blood vessel changes in the eye’s retina and optic nerve area. Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of vision loss and blindness in this ethnic group. Studies show that many do not receive the screening and treatment they need due to obstacles to care, including lack of health insurance and language barriers.

"This is a tragedy waiting to happen,” said Jose S. Pulido, MD, Academy clinical correspondent and professor of ophthalmology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. ”Effective treatments, including annual eye exams, can reduce severe vision loss in diabetics by up to 94 percent."

In the United States, one-third of those with diabetes are unaware of it. Some find out when their ophthalmologist notices changes in their retina—the light-sensitive area at the back of the eye---during a dilated eye exam. Nearly 5.5 million Americans age 18 and older have diabetic retinopathy. In addition to controlling their blood sugar, people with diabetes should work with their primary care physician to control their blood pressure, since both are important to slowing the development of diabetic retinopathy. Diabetics are also more likely to develop glaucoma, a complex disease that damages the optic nerve, which relays images from the eye to the brain.

There is a documented rise in Type 2 diabetes rates among Americans, particularly among the young. An estimated 23.6 million Americans have Type 2 diabetes, but nearly one quarter is unaware of it. African-Americans and people of Hispanic heritage are more likely to have diabetes. For people with Type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, the Academy recommends that the first dilated eye exam should take place within three to five years of initial diagnosis and then annually thereafter.

Additional information on diabetic retinopathy can be found on www.GetEyeSmart.org.

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