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By Kevin Damask, staff writer with the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired

On April 7, the World Health Organization (WHO) is focusing on diabetes as part of World Health Day.

According to WHO, about 347 million people worldwide had diabetes in 2008, and the disease is growing, especially in low and middle-income countries. In 2012, diabetes caused 1.5 million deaths and WHO predicts that diabetes will be the seventh leading cause of death by 2030.

For people with diabetes, the occurrence of eye disease is often more prevalent. Diabetic eye disease is a group of issues caused by diabetes, and all can cause severe vision loss or blindness.

There are three different diabetic eye diseases: diabetic retinopathy, cataract and glaucoma. Jean Kalscheur, Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired Education and Vision Services Director, said managing diabetes every day is vital to prevent vision loss.

“If you have vision loss, consider working with a diabetic educator and a vision rehabilitation specialist to find ways to accurately monitor and manage your diabetes,” Kalscheur said.

According to the National Eye Institute and the National Institutes of Health, diabetic retinopathy is the most common diabetic eye disease and the leading cause of blindness among adults in the U.S.

People affected with diabetic retinopathy may notice no changes in their vision in the early stages of the disease. However, as time passes, diabetic retinopathy can grow worse and cause vision loss in both eyes.

A cataract in the eye will cause the clouding of an eye’s lens and loss of vision. The disease can’t spread from one eye to the other. Dilated eye exams are the only way of detecting cataracts, so it’s important to have an eye doctor perform a dilated eye test every year during a routine vision check.

Cataracts can be treated with new eyeglasses, brighter lighting, anti-glare sunglasses or magnifying lenses. If these options don’t help, a cataract can be removed through surgery.

Glaucoma, which affects the optic nerve, can cause vision loss and blindness. Glaucoma can develop in either one or both eyes, and is diagnosed through a dilated eye exam.

If not treated, glaucoma can slowly diminish peripheral vision and can cause tunnel vision. Glaucoma may also affect straight-ahead vision, causing loss of total sight.

There are treatments for glaucoma that may save remaining vision, but can’t restore sight already lost. Treatment for glaucoma may include medication, conventional surgery, laser surgery, or a combination of these. An early diagnosis is very important, because early treatment can prevent continued vision loss.

There are several ways to prevent the onset of diabetic eye disease; the most important is to have a dilated eye exam every year. People affected by proliferative retinopathy can reduce their risk of blindness by 95 percent with regular eye exams.

For diabetics, controlling blood sugar levels is important in controlling the onset of diabetic eye diseases. The Wisconsin Diabetes Prevention and Control Program recommends having an A1C blood sugar level checkup every 3-6 months.

A healthy lifestyle is also a great way to prevent the onset of diabetes. Physical activity 30 minutes per day, five days a week, is recommended, but any physical activity can help lower blood sugar and lead to a longer, healthier life. Quitting smoking also greatly decreases the risk of diabetic retinopathy as well.

Eating healthy can help prevent diabetes. For those already diagnosed, seeing a registered dietitian for regular visits, especially through the first six months of diagnosis, is extremely beneficial. It is recommended to visit a Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) every 6-12 months to learn how to self-manage diabetes. 

“Carefully reading food labels help in making healthy eating choices. If you can’t see the labels, consider going to www.directionsforme.org and search by brand name,” Kalscheur said. “If the item is in the database, you get preparation instructions, nutrition information, and a listing of ingredients. Your tablet or computer can magnify or read this important information to you.”

For people not online, collecting labels from typically used food products can also help make healthier choices.

“Have a family member or friend enlarge relevant portions of the label on a copy machine,” Kalscheur said. “Place the enlarged information in a plastic sleeve so it is available as a reference. Read it with a magnifier, or add an audio label using a device like PenFriend.”

Kalscheur said vision rehabilitation specialists can help teach food preparation skills.

“It is possible to clean, chop, and cook with low or no vision,” Kalscheur said.

To learn more about low vision therapy and how to manage diabetic eye disease, contact the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired at 1-800-783-5213.