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Proper Eye Care Essential for Diabetics

When Anthony Sclafani, a retired New York Police Department detective, could not see the red or green of the traffic lights while driving one day, he realized he had a serious vision problem. He suspected the Type II diabetes he had lived with for 20 years was affecting his eyes. With laser treatment of his diabetic retinopathy and close monitoring of his blood sugar, Sclafani's vision is now better than it had been for years.

"Getting my vision back was like getting my life back, so I do everything my doctors tell me to keep it that way,"  Sclafani said.

November is Diabetic Eye Disease Awareness month, and the American Academy of Ophthalmology reminds the public that people with diabetes are 25 times more likely to become blind than those not who do not have the illness. Loss of vision can often be prevented or reduced if the disease is detected and treated early.

"The careful control of blood sugar may prevent and in some cases even reverse early damage from diabetic retinopathy," said Dr. K. Bailey Freund, a clinical correspondent for the Academy and Sclafani's doctor. "With treatment and follow up, we can minimize vision loss or in some cases restore vision to better than it was before treatment. A key factor for success is the patient's commitment to keeping his blood sugar tightly controlled through diet."

Diabetic retinopathy, a complication of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, is a degenerative disease of the retina (the area at the back of the eye that makes clear, central vision possible.) This eye disease affects 5.3 million Americans age 18 and up. Diabetes is on the rise in the United States,

including in young people, and one-third of the estimated 16 million people with diabetes are unaware that they have the illness. Sometimes people learn they are diabetic when an ophthalmologist's exam finds diabetic retinopathy.

High blood sugar levels have been linked to eye blood vessel abnormalities that result in a range of diabetic retinopathy symptoms. In the early phase, some patients may notice only mild or no changes in their vision. Since damage from the disease often develops slowly, early detection and treatment can make a crucial difference in preserving vision.

Ophthalmologists provide effective treatments for retinopathy, including laser photocoagulation for early to moderate stages, and a microsurgery called vitrectomy when the disease has caused extensive damage to the eye. Injectable and oral medications that act on abnormal blood vessels and could control diabetic retinopathy before vision loss occurs are now in development. Early detection would be key to the optimal effectiveness of these approaches.

For individuals at any age with symptoms of or at risk for eye disease – such as those with diabetes, high blood pressure or a family history of eye disease – the Academy recommends seeing an ophthalmologist to determine how frequently they should receive eye examinations. Pregnant women who have diabetes should see an ophthalmologist as early in the first trimester as possible, since retinopathy can worsen quickly during pregnancy. The Academy recommends a baseline eye exam at age 40 for everyone not at risk for eye disease.

Additional information on diabetic retinopathy can be found on

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