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Say the word “diabetes” and the conversation usually turns to things like diet restrictions, counting carbs, tales of visits to the diabetologist and the latest blood sugar monitoring devices. What rarely gets mentioned is how diabetes can impact eye health. In fact, there are plenty of myths around how diabetes affects your vision.
To counter these myths, and to empower people with Diabetes to take better care of their health and vision, Network 18 has launched the ‘Netra Suraksha’ - India Against Diabetes initiative, in association with Novartis. As a part of the initiative, Network18 will telecast round table discussions with experts in the medical field, as well as publish explainer videos and articles that add to the public knowledge around Diabetes, it’s affect on vision, and Diabetic Retinopathy, a scary complication that arises in nearly half the population of people with diabetes1.
So let’s get our facts straight.
Myth 1: If I can see, my eyes are healthy.
Clear eyesight is key, but it doesn’t guarantee that your eyes are healthy. Many conditions have few or no symptoms in the early stages.
Glaucoma is often called the silent thief of sight because there are no symptoms to warn you. Glaucoma damages a nerve in the back of your eye, called the optic nerve, which is connected to the brain2. With glaucoma, there is no cure, so it’s key that you catch it early and start treatment. Without treatment, glaucoma can cause blindness.
A cataract is a cloudy area in the lens of your eye. Cataracts take several years to develop and may not affect vision until they have ripened. Once the disease progresses, it requires surgical intervention3.
Diabetic Retinopathy is, by far, the most common disorder related to diabetes. In Diabetic Retinopathy, the blood vessels that supply the eye (particularly the retina) get blocked, or leak, or burst4. Diabetic Retinopathy is asymptomatic in the early stages but as the condition progresses, it can cause difficulty in reading that isn’t relieved by a change in spectacles. If not caught in time, it can lead to permanent vision loss4.
Myth 2: The risk of eye problems in people with diabetes isn’t that high
Numbers don’t lie. Worldwide, Diabetic Retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness among the working age population5. In India, by the year 2025 approximately 57 million people with Diabetes Mellitus will have retinopathy5.
Positive thinking is always an asset, but wishful thinking can have the opposite effect. Diabetic Retinopathy is a serious and common complication of diabetes, and the longer you’ve had diabetes, the higher your risk.
Myth 3: Diabetic Retinopathy only affects people with type 1 diabetes.
Anyone with diabetes can get diabetic eye disease, it doesn’t discriminate between type 1 and type 2 diabetes. It can also affect someone with gestational diabetes, which occurs during pregnancy. During the first two decades of disease, nearly all patients with type 1 diabetes and >60% of patients with type 2 diabetes develop retinopathy6.
Getting your eyes checked regularly can help your doctor catch and treat vision complications from diabetes early.
Myth 4: I have only just been diagnosed with diabetes, so I don’t need eye checkups yet.
While it is true that the risk of Diabetic Retinopathy goes up with the length of time you’ve had diabetes for, this is a statistic. Individual risks work differently. Everyone’s body is different, and just because the risk of developing something isn’t high in the overall population, that doesn’t mean that your risk, personally, isn’t high. Or that you won’t contract it.
Yes, vision-threatening retinopathy is rare in type 1 diabetic patients in the first 3–5 years of diabetes or before puberty. During the next two decades, nearly all type 1 diabetic patients develop retinopathy.
But, up to 21% of patients with type 2 diabetes have retinopathy at the time of first diagnosis of diabetes6!
Myth 5: Diabetic Retinopathy always causes blindness.
No. Not if it is caught early. The earlier your doctor diagnoses you, the better your prognosis. Diabetic Retinopathy is a progressive disease, which means that the earlier you catch it, and the better you manage it, the better your chances of stopping it in its tracks.
Based on an analysis of 35 studies worldwide carried out between 1980 and 2008, the overall prevalence of any Diabetic Retinopathy in people with diabetes using retinal images was estimated to be 35% with vision-threatening Diabetic Retinopathy present in only 12%4.
So, get your annual eye test (with your doctor, not your spectacle shop!), and manage your blood sugar.
Myth 6: If something is seriously wrong with my eyes, I’ll know immediately.
With many types of eye disorders, patients don’t notice symptoms during their earliest—most treatable—stages. Diabetic Retinopathy, for instance, is completely asymptomatic until it becomes severe7.
That’s right: No pain. No vision changes7. No clues at all. In fact, according to Dr Manisha Agarwal, Joint Secretary, Retina Society of India, one of the earliest symptoms is a persistent difficulty in reading that doesn’t go away even with a change in spectacles. This is an early sign that shouldn’t be taken lightly. If ignored, the symptoms can escalate to clouds of black or red spots in the field of vision, or even sudden blackouts due to hemorrhages in the eye.
Fortunately, there are eye checks that can detect this problem before symptoms are noticeable. A painless dilated eye exam, in which your eye doctor uses eye drops to widen the pupils so they can look at the back of the eye7 (where the retina is).
Something this simple can save your vision. And a little awareness goes a long way in combating preventable vision loss.
The best way to combat any disease is to build your knowledge about it. Take control of your health, and your vision. Especially if you or your loved ones have a diabetes diagnosis, learn about Diabetic Retinopathy by following News18.com for more updates about the Netra Suraksha initiative. Also, take the online Diabetic Retinopathy Self Check Up to assess whether you need to see your doctor.
The best thing you can do to minimize your personal risk is to carefully follow the diabetes management plan outlined by your doctor. The easiest recommendation is to get your eyes tested once a year for Diabetic Retinopathy - a simple, easy, painless test that can have an enormously positive impact on your quality of life, and that of your family. Don’t hesitate, and don’t believe yourself invulnerable.
- https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/diabetes-in-india[U1] 10 Dec, 2021.
- https://www.nei.nih.gov/about/news-and-events/news/glaucoma-silent-thief-begins-tell-its-secrets 17 Dec, 2021
- https://www.nei.nih.gov/learn-about-eye-health/eye-conditions-and-diseases/cataracts 17 Dec, 2021
- https://www.nei.nih.gov/learn-about-eye-health/eye-conditions-and-diseases/diabetic-retinopathy 10 Dec, 2021
- Balasubramaniyan N, Ganesh KS, Ramesh BK, Subitha L. Awareness and practices on eye effects among people with diabetes in rural Tamil Nadu, India. Afri Health Sci. 2016;16(1): 210-217.
- https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/27/suppl_1/s84 17, Dec 2021
- https://youtu.be/nmMBudzi4zc 29 Dec, 2021