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Diabetes and Your Eyes

Focus on Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetes is the forgotten epidemic of the 21st century and stands as one of the biggest ongoing challenges confronting Australia’s health system.

Diabetes remains the number one cause of blindness in Australian adults.

The disease causes a range of serious health problems in the body; some of the most serious problems are the ones that develop in the eyes, otherwise known as diabetic retinopathy.

Diabetic retinopathy can lead to blindness. The worst thing about the condition is that there are often no symptoms of diabetic retinopathy during the early stages, so people don’t even know they have it.

If you have diabetes, the only way to know if you have diabetic retinopathy is to have a diabetes eye test done by your optometrist.

What is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Diabetes complications fall into two groups: ‘microvascular’ and ‘macrovascular.’

Macrovascular complications involve large blood vessels; microvascular complications involve small blood vessels.

When a person has diabetes, they have high levels of glucose, or blood sugar. High blood glucose levels over long periods of time damages blood vessels. Basically, the blood vessels lose elasticity and that causes them to narrow, which restricts blood flow.

Examples of macrovascular diabetic complications would be conditions such as heart disease, stroke, or the loss of feeling in the legs, hands, or feet.

Diabetic retinopathy is an example of damage to the small blood vessels in the retina, which is located at the back of your eyes. The retina is a thin tissue that contains millions of nerve cells, which are responsible for detecting light, shapes, and colours.

In the first stage of diabetic retinopathy, (called ‘non-proliferative’), the damaged blood vessels in the retina become weak and leak. In the second, more advanced stage of diabetic retinopathy (called ‘proliferative’), the damage to the retinal blood vessels is more widespread. That causes the growth of new, abnormal blood vessels. When that happens, there is severe loss of vision, increased eye pressure leading to glaucoma and the potential for total blindness. With regular checkups your optometrist may be able to refer you to a qualified eye doctor for surgical intervention before it is too late.

Risk Factors of Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is one of the most common complications of diabetes. Anyone with diabetes can develop it, but the risk of vision loss can go up based on the following factors:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • Long periods of elevated blood glucose levels
  • The longer you have diabetes

People with diabetes are not powerless to stop the advance of diabetic retinopathy. It’s important to remember that regular eye exams and dedication to maintaining control of blood sugar and blood pressure are the best ways to prevent diabetes vision loss.

Vision Loss Prevention

Most vision loss from diabetic eye disease can be prevented if it is caught early enough.

If you or someone you care about has diabetes, don’t wait for visual diabetic retinopathy symptoms to develop to book an eye check. Often, by the time vision problems are experienced, the disease is in the advanced stages, and it will be more difficult to manage.

As a rule of thumb, people with diabetes should have their eyes checked after being diagnosed with the condition, and then at least once every two years. Often, some people will need to have eye checks more frequently. Speak with us at EyecarePlus member optometrists to determine the schedule that is right for you.

In July each year, Diabetes Australia focusses on raising public awareness about the seriousness of diabetes and to encourage all Australians to check their risk. The 2022 National Diabetes Week takes place from 10 to 16 July and focuses on the emotional health and well-being of the 1.8 million Australians living with the condition.

Too many Australians have already lost their sight as the result of diabetes. In recognition of National Diabetes Week 2022, let’s all commit to changing these statistics.


Author: Juliet Menakaya, O.D MPH

CANBERRA OPTOMETRIST Juliet obtained her Doctor of Optometry degree from the University of Benin, Nigeria in 2006. She completed an internship programme before migrating to Australia, where she completed a master’s degree in public health at the University of Sydney in 2014. Following this, Juliet obtained a Master of Orthoptics from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in 2017. Juliet has completed her competency in optometry examination with OCANZ (Optometry Council of Australia and New Zealand), and obtained her ophthalmic prescribing rights from ACO (Australian College Of Optometry Victoria). Juliet has worked in various positions, including retail Optometry, the Ophthalmology Department at Canberra Hospital, and more recently, at the John Curtin School of Medical Research (ANU). As a dedicated Canberra optometrist, Juliet is passionate about helping people with low vision, and binocular vision anomalies hence her interests in Low Vision Rehabilitation, Eccentric Viewing Training and Paediatric optometry.