3 Myths About Diabetes and Eye Health

Learn the truth about the importance of staying on top of your eye health if you have diabetes.

Regular eye exams are important for diabetes. Older man getting eyes checked.

Say the word “diabetes” and the conversation usually turns to things like counting carbs and tales of finger pricks and blood sugar monitoring. 

What doesn’t get mentioned often enough is how diabetes can impact eye health. No surprise, then, that one of the biggest challenges eye doctors face is patients with diabetes who won’t come in when everything seems fine.

Rahul N. Khurana, M.D., gets it. “People with diabetes have so many doctors to see, so getting their eyes checked for related complications can easily fall by the wayside,” says Dr. Khurana, a vitreoretinal surgeon with Northern California Retina Vitreous Associates Medical Group, Inc., and clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

The problem, however, is that those related eye complications he mentions are quite serious. As in, “you could lose your eyesight” serious.

Up to 50 percent of people with type 1 diabetes and 30 percent of people with type 2 diabetes will deal with potentially vision-threatening eye problems, according to a report in the World Journal of Diabetes

The good news: “More than 95 percent of diabetes-related vision loss can be prevented,” says Dr. Khurana.

That’s why making an appointment to have your eyes checked regularly is more important than you might imagine.

“We do have treatments for diabetic eye problems,” he says, “but we can do more when we catch the problem early, before your vision slips.”

Here are three myths that might be holding you back—and what you need to know to protect your sight.

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Diabetes and Eye Health Myth #1: My Risk of Eye Problems Isn’t That High

“Diabetes-related eye disease is not a rare problem,” says Dr. Khurana. “It’s a significant problem.” 

People with diabetes are more likely to develop eye disorders, and they are more likely to develop them earlier in life than other folks, according to recent data from the National Eye Institute.

In fact, 40 to 45 percent of people with diabetes already have diabetic retinopathy, a condition that attacks the tiny blood vessels within the retina, which is tucked away in the back of the eye. And the longer you have diabetes, the greater your risk. A study in the journal Clinical Diabetes found that, among people who have had type 2 diabetes for 20 years, more than 60 percent also have diabetic retinopathy. 

Diabetic retinopathy also has the unfortunate distinction of being the most common cause of blindness: Up to 24,000 Americans between the ages of 20 and 64 with the disease go blind each year, according to researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who looked at 25 years worth of diabetes-related data and reported their findings in the Annals of Internal Medicine

Other eye disorders, including glaucoma and cataracts, are also more common among people with chronic high blood sugar, according to the American Diabetes Association. All three of these conditions, if left unchecked, can rob you of your sight. 

The best thing you can do to minimize your personal risk is to carefully follow the diabetes management plan outlined by your doctor—including sticking to their recommendation for regular eye exams.

Diabetes and Eye Health Myth #2: I’d Know If I Had an Eye Problem

With many types of eye disorders, patients don’t notice symptoms during their earliest—most treatable—stages, says Dr. Khurana. Often there are no signs of diabetic retinopathy until it becomes severe. 

That’s right: No pain. No vision changes. No clues at all. At least at first.

Fortunately, there are two types of eye checks that can detect this problem before symptoms are noticeable. One is a dilated eye exam, in which your eye doctor uses eyedrops to widen the pupils so he or she can look at the back of the eye (where the retina is). 

The other is retinal image screening. In this case, your eye doctor uses a high-resolution laser to scan your retinas and create a digital image. One benefit to this: Your doctor can show you the image—and save it for comparison in the future.  

The American Diabetes Association recommends that retinal screenings be done in conjunction with a comprehensive eye exam, with the results being interpreted by a qualified eye care professional. 

Your eye doctor will determine which exam is right for you.

Diabetes and Eye Health Myth #3: I’ve Been to the Eye Doctor Recently

Have you, really? Time can get away from us! Check your calendar. We’ll wait.

Diabetes experts, including Dr. Khurana, recommend that people with diabetes get a comprehensive eye exam at least once every year. Some people need them more often, though. Your diabetes doctor and eye doctor can advise you.

Also see your eye doctor right away if any vision problems crop up between your yearly exams. “As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” says Dr. Khurana. “With diabetes-related eye disease, this really is the case.”