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Over 21 million people in the United States have diabetes, with an estimated additional 6 million people unaware they have a form of the disease. In addition, an estimated 54 million Americans ages 40 to 74 have prediabetes, a condition that puts them at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. According to a recent American Optometric Association survey, diabetes is the leading cause of new cases of blindness among adults ages 20 to 74.

Diabetic retinopathy involves swelling, leaking or abnormal growth of blood vessels in or near the retina. There are multiple stages to this disease, the earliest of which may not present any symptoms you can see.

That is why comprehensive eye exams are so important when thinking about diabetes and eye sight—both type 1 and type 2 diabetics are at risk for developing diabetic retinopathy, and the longer you have diabetes, the more likely you are to develop some form of the disease.

Depending on the severity and type of diabetic retinopathy treatment can include laser procedures or surgery.

Signs and Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy

Anyone who has diabetes is at risk for developing diabetic retinopathy, but not all diabetics will be affected. In the early stages of diabetes, you may not notice any change in your vision. But by the time you notice vision changes from diabetes, your eyes may already be irreparably damaged by the disease.

That is why routine eye exams are so important. Your optometrist can detect signs of diabetes in your eyes even before you notice any visual symptoms, and early detection and treatment can prevent vision loss.

Floaters are one symptom of diabetic retinopathy. Sometimes, difficulty reading or doing close work can indicate that fluid is collecting in the macula, the most light-sensitive part of the retina. This fluid build-up is called macular edema. Another symptom is double vision, which occurs when the nerves controlling the eye muscles are affected.

If you experience any of these symptoms, see your optometrist immediately. If you are diabetic, you should see your optometrist at least once a year for a dilated eye exam, even if you have no visual symptoms.

Causes of Diabetic Retinopathy

In the retina, high blood sugar can damage blood vessels that can leak fluid or bleed. This causes the retina to swell and form deposits. This is an early form of diabetic retinopathy called non-proliferative or background retinopathy.

In a later stage, called proliferative retinopathy, new blood vessels grow on the surface of the retina. These new blood vessels can lead to serious vision problems because they can break and bleed into the vitreous, the clear, jelly-like substance that fills the interior of the eye. Proliferative retinopathy is a much more serious form of the disease and can lead to blindness.

Fortunately, you can significantly reduce your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy by taking good care of yourself:

  • Keep your blood sugar under good control.
  • Maintain a healthy diet.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Follow your doctor's instructions for managing your condition.