Visual Impairment Less Common in Diabetes

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Visual Impairment Less Common in Diabetes

Visual impairment due to diabetic retinopathy (eye disease) has become less common over the past 40 years in Finland even as diabetes cases have gone up — showing that a rise in diabetes doesn’t necessarily mean more visual impairment, according to a new analysis published in the journal Diabetes Care.

People with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are at risk for complications that can lead to vision loss — due to conditions such as diabetic retinopathy or diabetic macular edema. While there are treatments that can help address these conditions, maintaining good blood glucose control is essential to preventing or limiting vision loss. It’s also important to get regular eye exams as recommended by your doctor, since certain eye-related measurements can help detect early signs of vision-threatening conditions. Certain lifestyle factors, like what you eat, may also affect your risk for vision-threatening eye conditions.

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For the latest analysis, researchers looked at trends related to vision loss and diabetic retinopathy in Finland between 1980 and 2019. Since Finland has a universal health care system with a central database, its data on visual impairment over decades is generally considered consistent and reliable. The researchers then compared rates of visual impairment due to diabetic retinopathy with overall rates of diabetes over the same time period.

Drops in visual impairment despite increases in diabetes

The researchers found that the yearly incidence of visual impairment from diabetic retinopathy — meaning new cases of visual impairment — peaked in the 1990s, and has decreased since then. In fact, this decrease has been enormous — between the 1990s and the 2010s, the incidence of visual impairment due to non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy (the less severe form) dropped from 102.3 to 5.5 cases per 100,000 people with treated diabetes. The incidence of visual impairment due to proliferative diabetic retinopathy (the more severe form) dropped from 39.9 to 7.4 cases per 100,000 people with diabetes.

This drop in the rate of visual impairment isn’t because fewer people are developing diabetic retinopathy — on the contrary, the rate of treatment for diabetic retinopathy increased over the same time period. So the decrease in visual impairment most likely reflects more people getting necessary treatment, and those treatments becoming more effective at preventing vision loss. Not only are fewer people developing visual impairment, but this impairment tends to be less severe — and to occur at an older age — when it does occur.

Overall, the trends seen in this study demonstrate that even as rates of diabetes increase, it’s not inevitable that rates of visual impairment will also increase. If enough people with diabetes maintain good blood glucose control and get screened and treated for potential eye complications, the risk for visual impairment can be reduced — potentially dramatically — over time.

Want to learn more about keeping your eyes healthy with diabetes? Read “Diabetic Eye Exams: What to Know,” “Eating for Better Vision and Healthy Eyes,” and “Keeping Your Eyes Healthy” and watch “Diabetes and Your Eyes.”

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips on social media

A freelance health writer and editor based in Wisconsin, Phillips has a degree from Harvard University. He is a former Editorial Assistant for Diabetes Self-Management and has years of experience covering diabetes and related health conditions. Phillips writes on a variety of topics, but is especially interested in the intersection of health and public policy.

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