Diabetes and Eye Disease

eye symbol

11/2022

November is Diabetes Awareness Month

Diabetes can affect the eyes and can cause vision loss or even blindness. Diabetic Retinopathy is a common eye disease and the leading cause of blindness in working-age adults. It happens when too much blood sugar (glucose) damages the blood vessels in the retina. As a result, the retina does not get enough oxygen and nutrients causing blood vessels to leak.

Lindsay A. Rhodes, M.D., MSPH, associate professor of ophthalmology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), and principal investigator of the Alabama Screening and Intervention for Glaucoma and eye Health through Telemedicine (AL-SIGHT) study, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, answers questions about diabetes and eye disease and discusses the AL-SIGHT Study program.

Q. What are some early signs of Diabetic Retinopathy (DR)?

A. People may have DR but may not have any symptoms at first. It can affect both central vision and peripheral (side) vision—causing symptoms like blurriness or floating spots in people’s vision (floaters).

Q. Which groups of individuals are most at risk for diabetic retinopathy?

A. Hispanic, American Indian, and African Americans are at higher risk for DR. A history of smoking, high glucose (A1C) levels, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol are also risk factors for DR.

Q. What can people do to prevent vision loss associated with diabetic eye disease?

A. A yearly eye exam with dilated pupils is one of the best ways to detect early signs of diabetic eye disease.  Taking diabetic medication as prescribed, maintaining a healthy diet, staying physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, and refraining from smoking can also help control your diabetes which lessens your risks of diabetic eye disease.

Q. How is the AL-SIGHT program at UAB reaching people at higher- risk of diabetic eye disease?

A. Diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death in Alabama in 2019 and is especially frequent in rural areas.

Our AL-SIGHT program aims to prevent vision loss among some of the state’s most vulnerable residents. Although early detection and treatment are critical for preventing vision loss and blindness, approximately 25 percent of people with DR do not know they have it. In rural areas with few eye care providers, people often delay getting routine eye exams. The AL-SIGHT program is collaborating with three Federally Qualified Health Center clinics located in rural Alabama. We are bringing our eye health screening to where people see their trusted primary care provider at these clinics. Clinic providers have made direct referrals of eligible patients (e.g., with diabetes or Black race) to our program. These patients may not have access to regular eye exams, but with telemedicine, which is integral to our program, we offer them easy access to specialty care services and expert evaluation necessary for early detection and treatment.