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American Foundation for the Blind® | Reader's Digest Partners for Sight

How Diabetes Affects the Eyes and Vision

Although individuals with diabetes are more likely to develop cataracts at a younger age and are twice as likely to develop glaucoma as are non-diabetics, the primary vision problem caused by diabetes is diabetic retinopathy, the leading cause of new cases of blindness and low vision in adults aged 20-65:

  • "Retinopathy" is a general term that describes damage to the retina.
  • The retina is a thin, light-sensitive tissue that lines the inside surface of the eye. Nerve cells in the retina convert incoming light into electrical impulses. These electrical impulses are carried by the optic nerve to the brain, which interprets them as visual images.
  • Diabetic retinopathy occurs when there is damage to the small blood vessels that nourish tissue and nerve cells in the retina.
  • "Proliferative" is a general term that means to grow or increase at a rapid rate by producing new tissue or cells. When the term "proliferative" is used in relation to diabetic retinopathy, it describes the growth, or proliferation, of abnormal new blood vessels in the retina. "Non-proliferative" indicates that this process is not yet occurring.
  • Proliferative diabetic retinopathy affects approximately 1 in 20 individuals with the disease.

Four Stages of Diabetic Retinopathy

According to the National Eye Institute, diabetic retinopathy has four stages:

  • Mild non-proliferative retinopathy: At this early stage, small areas of balloon-like swelling occur in the retina's tiny blood vessels.
  • Moderate non-proliferative retinopathy: As the disease progresses, some blood vessels that nourish the retina become blocked.
  • Severe non-proliferative retinopathy: Many more blood vessels become blocked, which disrupts the blood supply that nourishes the retina. The damaged retina then signals the body to produce new blood vessels.
  • Proliferative retinopathy: At this advanced stage, signals sent by the retina trigger the development of new blood vessels that grow (or proliferate) in the retina and the vitreous, which is a transparent gel that fills the interior of the eye. Because these new blood vessels are abnormal, they can rupture and bleed, causing hemorrhages in the retina or vitreous. Scar tissue can develop and can tug at the retina, causing further damage or even retinal detachment.

In addition, fluid can leak into the macula, the small sensitive area in the center of the retina that provides detailed vision. This fluid can cause macular edema (or swelling), which can occur at any stage of diabetic retinopathy, although it is more likely to occur as the disease progresses.

Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy can include:

  • Blurred or double vision
  • Flashing lights, which can indicate a retinal detachment
  • A veil, cloud, or streaks of red in the field of vision, or dark or floating spots in one or both eyes, which can indicate bleeding
  • Blind or blank spots in the field of vision

Ocular and functional effects of diabetic retinopathy can include any or all of the following:

  • Fluctuating vision in response to changing blood glucose levels; vision can change from day-to-day, or from morning to evening
  • Blurred central vision from macular edema can interfere with reading
  • Decreased visual acuity can interfere with seeing the markings on an insulin syringe or the display on a standard blood glucose monitor
  • Irregular patches of vision loss or "blind spots" can make it difficult to judge the size of food portions on a plate.
  • Decreased depth perception, in combination with decreased visual acuity, can make it difficult to see curbs and steps, or walk to the diabetes clinic.

Personal Stories

  • Vivian, A Woman with Diabetes
    Vivian is a quiet-spoken woman who has strong opinions and religious beliefs and a dignified determination. Vivian was diagnosed with diabetes twenty years ago, at age 58. Ten years later, she was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy and spinal stenosis.

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