As a woman, you do a lot to make smart health choices, from balancing your work and personal life to maintaining a healthy diet and getting regular exercise to allowing enough time for rest and sleep.
And while you know it’s important to visit your doctor regularly to help you stay healthy and feel your best, you might not realize that feeling your best includes seeing your best, too. If you have diabetes, taking care of your vision is especially important. Getting an annual comprehensive dilated eye exam is one of the best choices you can make to help protect your eyesight.
If you have diabetes, you are at risk for vision loss and blindness from diabetic eye disease. The longer you have diabetes, the more likely you will get diabetic eye disease — a group of eye problems that includes
• diabetic retinopathy, which damages blood vessels in the retina (the light-sensitive layer at the back of the eyeball);
• cataract, a clouding of the lens of the eye; and
• glaucoma, an increase in fluid pressure inside the eye that can damage the optic nerve and cause vision loss.
Diabetic retinopathy is the most common form of diabetic eye disease and is a leading cause of blindness in American adults. Up to 45% of people with diabetes have some degree of diabetic retinopathy. In some, retinal blood vessels may swell and leak fluid. In others, abnormal new blood vessels grow on the surface of the retina. Left untreated, it may result in vision loss or blindness. Diabetic retinopathy may develop or become worse in women who have diabetes during pregnancy. This includes both women who have had diabetes before pregnancy and those who develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), half of women who develop gestational diabetes will develop Type 2 diabetes later in life, even when the gestational diabetes goes away after the baby is born. The CDC advises women who have had gestational diabetes in the past have their blood sugar checked every one to three years.
Early diagnosis can prevent vision loss
Diabetic eye disease often has no symptoms in its early stages. Most people do not have vision problems until the disease reaches an advanced stage. There is no pain, and vision may not change until the disease becomes severe. To help prevent vision loss and blindness, you should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year if you have diabetes. Women with diabetes who become pregnant should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam as soon as possible. Additional exams during pregnancy may be needed.
During a comprehensive dilated eye exam, an eye care professional places drops in your eyes to dilate, or widen, the pupil to allow more light to enter the eye — the same way an open door lets more light into a dark room. This process enables the eye care professional to get a good look at the back of the eyes and examine them for any signs of damage or disease. Your eye care professional is the only one who can determine if your eyes are healthy and if you’re seeing your best.
Early diagnosis, timely treatment, and appropriate follow-up care can prevent or delay severe vision loss in more than 95% of patients with diabetic eye disease. And now, new and better treatments are available.
Unfortunately, many people with diabetes do not get the annual comprehensive dilated eye exam that eye health professionals recommend. On average, only about half of people with Type 2 diabetes receive an annual exam. People often wait until they notice changes in their vision before seeking treatment. Many are diagnosed when it is too late for treatment to be effective. And vision that is lost often cannot be restored.
Stay on TRACK
As a woman with diabetes, you can take steps to manage your condition and prevent or delay diabetic eye disease, especially diabetic retinopathy. Keep your eye health on TRACK.
• Take your medications as directed by your doctor. Ask your doctor or pharmacist when and how often you should take your medications and whether to take them with food. Also ask what you should do if you ever forget to take a dose.
• Reach and maintain a healthy weight. Work with a dietitian to design a meal plan that helps you maintain healthy blood glucose levels, lowers your risk of complications, and includes foods you like to eat.
• Add physical activity to your daily routine. Exercise should be part of any plan to help control diabetes. Exercise can help you lower blood glucose levels, lose weight, and maintain weight loss. Talk to your doctor to create an exercise plan that will be safe for you.
• Control your HbA1c, blood pressure, and cholesterol. By keeping your blood glucose level as close to normal as possible, you can help prevent diabetes-related eye problems. Keeping your cholesterol and blood pressure levels in a healthy range lowers your risk of heart disease, stroke and other complications.
• Kick the smoking habit. Smoking is as bad for your eyes as it is for the rest of your body and has been linked to certain eye diseases. People who quit smoking will experience immediate health benefits and, over time, lower their risk of heart disease, stroke, lung disease, and cancer.