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Understanding Diabetes Complications: Eye Health

Understanding Diabetes Complications: Eye Health: Main Image
Even serious eye complications can be appropriately treated if caught early
Eye disease is more common in people with diabetes, but fortunately, these problems can be managed and in most cases do not lead to blindness. Even serious eye complications can be appropriately treated, if caught early, so it's important to familiarize yourself with potential complications and talk to your doctor about how to best care for your eyes.

Keep an eye on your vision


Diabetic retinopathy is the general term for damage to the retina caused by diabetes. The two main types of retinopathy are nonproliferative, and proliferative.

Nonproliferative retinopathy

This condition occurs when tiny vessels in the eyes become blocked, causing capillaries in the back of the eye to balloon. This can lead to vision changes, such as blurred vision.

Proliferative retinopathy

This more severe type of retinopathy occurs as the nonproliferative form progresses. Eye blood vessels become completely blocked, leading to new blood vessel formation. The new eye blood vessels can leak blood and cause scar tissue to form, both of which damage vision. If scar tissue is severe, it can lead to a detached retina.

Macular edema

The macula is where high-acuity vision--which is the sharpest part of vision--occurs in the eye. Excess fluid in this area is called macular edema. This can lead to blurry or lost vision, but proper treatment can stop, and even reverse, vision changes.


Cataracts occur when the lens of the eye becomes cloudy. This blocks light and dims vision. People with diabetes are more likely to develop cataracts than people without the disease, and they tend to develop cataracts at a younger age.


Glaucoma occurs when pressure builds up in the eye. Both diabetes and advancing age make glaucoma more likely. If untreated, glaucoma can pinch eye blood vessels and the optic nerve, causing a gradual loss of vision over time, but good treatment options do exist.

Plan for eye protection

Taking steps to protect your vision is one of the most important things you can do for your health:

  • Pay close attention to vision changes and report changes to your doctor immediately.
  • Have regular eye exams--at least once yearly--with an eye care specialist.
  • Wear UV protective eye glasses--regular and sunglasses--to minimize sun exposure to eyes.
  • Keep blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels in the normal range.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Ask your doctor about vitamin supplements specifically designed to protect eye health, such as pycnogenol, or a combination of the vitamins C and E, lutein, zeaxanthin, zinc, and omega-3 fats.
  • Ask your doctor about dietary supplements that may help manage blood sugar levels, such as magnesium, chromium, fenugreek, glucomannan, psyllium, and other fiber products. For people with diabetes, good blood sugar control is essential to maintaining eye health.
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.
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