It is a little-known fact that diabetes is one of the leading causes of blindness in the world. This is especially true among the working age population, since after living with diabetes for 20 years the risk of developing sight-threatening eye disease increases significantly.
Diabetic Retinopathy damages the small blood vessels inside the retina at the back of the eye — the part that detects light and sends signals to the brain through the optic nerve. It commonly affects both eyes and can lead to vision loss if it is not treated.
Meet Neill Hansell, an Australian who went to bed one night and woke up blind the next day. His video, provided by Sight For All (sightforall.org) with special thanks to James Muecke, is powerful and moving. Another striking example is Leonie Watson who lost her sight in her 20s after ignoring doctors’ advice about her diabetes for years. “I became blind over the course of 12 months from late 1999 to the end of 2000. It was mostly my fault” she said in an interview with the BBC in 2015.
Anyone with diabetes can get diabetic retinopathy — including people with Type 1, Type 2, and gestational diabetes. It is estimated that there are 149 million people worldwide with diabetic retinopathy and of those, around 47 million with sight-threatening diabetic retinopathy. These dramatic numbers are expected to exceed 245 million people with diabetic retinopathy and 77 million with sight-threatening diabetic retinopathy by 2045.
The early stages of diabetic retinopathy are often asymptomatic. Some people notice changes in their vision, like trouble reading or seeing faraway objects. In later stages of the disease, blood vessels in the retina start to bleed into the vitreous, leading to dark, floating spots or streaks appearing. Sometimes, the spots clear up on their own but it’s important to get treatment right away as without treatment, the bleeding can happen again and get worse.
Diabetes damages blood vessels all over the body. Over time, too much sugar in the blood can lead to the blockage of the tiny blood vessels that nourish the retina, cutting off its blood supply. As a result, the eye attempts to grow new blood vessels, but these new blood vessels don’t develop properly and can leak easily.
Given that the majority of vision impairment from diabetic retinopathy is avoidable through early detection and timely treatment, periodic screening among individuals with diabetes has long been endorsed by the World Health Organization and others. Eye doctors can check for diabetic retinopathy as part of a dilated eye exam. The exam is simple and painless — your doctor will give you some eye drops to dilate your pupil and then check your eyes for diabetic retinopathy and other eye problems. Timely treatment of sight-threatening diabetic retinopathy with laser or other interventions is highly effective in preventing vision impairment or blindness.
The RetinaRisk app is a unique and revolutionary tool that can be instrumental in preventing diabetic retinopathy. The free RetinaRisk app allows people with diabetes to assess and monitor their individualized risk of developing sight-threatening diabetic retinopathy and seek early diagnosis and timely treatment. Together, we will be able to eliminate preventable blindness due to diabetes.