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Diabetic retinopathy

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What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about diabetes? Sugar and insulin? Diabetes is a complex disease that can lead to many complications, including diabetic retinopathy. What is the link between diabetes and your eyes, you ask? Here is some information that will shed light on this condition.

A few statistics

In Québec, it is estimated that between 250,000 and 300,000 people suffer from diabetes, a disease that causes high levels of blood sugar (glycemia). An appropriate diet, physical exercise and medication are some of the measures that can bring blood-sugar levels back to normal.

When diabetes is not properly managed, excess blood sugar leads to several complications in the blood vessels, nerves, kidneys and eyes. The eye condition, called diabetic retinopathy, is the main cause of vision loss in people aged between 20 and 70 in North America.

What is diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is characterized by a swelling of the blood vessels in the retina, which is the part of the eye that seizes images to transmit to the brain. Gradually, these blood vessels get clogged and deprive the retina of nutrients and oxygen. New blood vessels then form around the retina, but, unfortunately, they are very delicate and can tear, causing bleeding. This can lead to partial or complete loss of vision.

Another manifestation of retinopathy is macular oedema, which is the thickening of the retina in a very specific area: the macula. Located at the back of the eye, the macula is responsible for high-resolution vision, which allows us to read, write or thread a needle, for example. When there is an accumulation of fluid, the macula swells and causes blurred vision.

Diabetic retinopathy does not cause symptoms, unless the disease is at an advanced stage.

How to prevent diabetic retinopathy

The development of diabetic retinopathy is influenced by several factors, including:

  • hyperglycemia (high level of blood sugar);
  • duration of diabetes;
  • improperly managed blood pressure;
  • high cholesterol level;
  • pregnancy.

A screening test and evaluation must be performed by a specialist on a regular basis. People with type 1 diabetes are advised to get a complete eye exam every year. For patients with type 2 diabetes, the frequency of eye exams depends on the severity of their retinopathy. If there is retinopathy, or if it is mild, the interval between follow-ups is usually one to two years.

Pregnancy can accelerate the development of diabetic retinopathy. In women with diabetes, an exam is recommended before conception, during the first trimester, on a need-to basis during the pregnancy and within the year following childbirth.

Depending on the health of your eyes, your doctor may suggest laser treatment or surgery. It is important to remember, however, that preventing this condition is something anyone can do. Indeed, the best way to prevent diabetic retinopathy is, just as it is for all complications of diabetes, an optimal control of glycemia, blood pressure and cholesterol levels in the blood. A healthy lifestyle is therefore beneficial not only for your health in general, but for your eyes, too. If the apple of your eye is not the only part you’d like to keep forever, make diabetes management a priority!

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