The little-known link between diabetes and eyesight

People with diabetes have a higher risk of vision loss, so regular eye health checks are a must.

More than 80 per cent of vision impairment in Australia is caused by a mere five conditions – and diabetes increases your risk factor for three of them.

Diabetes, which is the fastest-growing chronic condition in the country, has been known to lead to long-term eye problems that can eventually result in blindness:

  • Diabetic retinopathy: Occurs when high blood sugar levels damage the small blood vessels in the retina, causing them to leak fluid. In the early stages, it can be asymptomatic but as it progresses, symptoms can include blurry vision, sensitivity to light and poor night vision.
  • Glaucoma: Occurs when the optic nerve is damaged, leading to a build-up of pressure within the eye. Anyone can get glaucoma, but it is more common in those living with diabetes. If left untreated, it can lead to blindness. Unfortunately, there are no easy-to-spot red flags for glaucoma unless you’re an optometrist.
  • Cataracts: Occurs when the lens in the eye becomes cloudy, reducing vision. People with diabetes are more likely to develop cataracts at a younger age and quicker.

Greg Johnson, CEO of Diabetes Australia and adjunct professor at Deakin University, estimates that around half the 1.3 million Aussies who have diabetes are not getting their eyes checked frequently enough, resulting in eye damage being identified too late when treatment options are more expensive – and less effective.

“Many people with diabetes are not even aware they need to have their eyes checked,” Prof Johnson says.

“Often there are no signs or symptoms of eye damage and it is only picked up when people get their eyes checked for reading or when substantial damage has occurred.”

How often should you get your eyes checked?

The nature of conditions like diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma is that there are no obvious early warning signs: changes in vision happen so gradually that most people don’t realise something is wrong until the problem is very serious.

To prevent vision loss, it is essential to have regular eye checks with an optometrist or ophthalmologist so they can detect those subtle, early symptoms.

  • Get your eyes checked when you are first diagnosed with diabetes, then once every two years.
  • If you already have eye problems, you may need more frequent checks.
  • If you notice any changes in your vision like distortion, blurriness or halos, discuss this as soon as you can with your optometrist or doctor.

A referral from your GP is not necessary and there is no need to hesitate over expense, as Medicare funds one eye check a year for Aussies aged 65 or older.

Prof Johnson explained that diabetes is a complex condition that requires patients to undertake a range of regular health checks and tests to manage their health, making it easy to overlook eye check-ups. However, Diabetes Australia is offering a free service called KeepSight that allows you to register for reminders to get your eyes checked.

Read more: ‘Diabetes won’t stop me enjoying life: How I keep on top of the condition’

“Diabetes is a complex condition and people with diabetes need to have a range of regular health checks and tests to manage their condition. It can be time-consuming and sometimes things get overlooked,” Prof Johnson says.

“Once people are registered with KeepSight they’ll receive reminders and prompts to have regular diabetes eye checks. Your details will be securely held by Diabetes Australia and only used to provide regular reminders and information to help you keep your sight.”

Things you can do to care for your eyes

If you have diabetes, Diabetes Australia has a few suggestions on how you can look after your eyes:

  • Keep your blood sugar levels, blood pressure and cholesterol levels within your target ranges, as high levels of any of these increase your risk of eye complications.
  • Take your medications, as prescribed by your doctor.
  • Don’t smoke, or if you do, quit.
  • Regular physical activity and healthy eating will also help manage your blood sugar levels.

However, the most important thing you can do for your eyesight is to get your eyes checked regularly to ensure health problems are detected and treated early.

“If we detect problems early then people can get early treatment and damage can be prevented and people can keep their sight,” Prof Johnson says.

If you or a loved one are affected by diabetes, you can register for free eye check reminders at KeepSight.

Does diabetes affect you or someone you know? How often do you get your eyes checked?

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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