When your blood sugar levels soar, the tiny blood vessels in your eyes can suffer serious damage. Over time, diabetes that is not well controlled can lead to permanent vision loss from diabetic retinopathy, in which damage to blood vessels in the retina causes fat, fluid, and blood to leak out. You can lower your risk of eye complications, however, by practicing good diabetes management and taking other self-care steps, says Catherine Meyerle, MD, assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute in Baltimore. Here’s what you need to know to keep your eyes healthy and prevent vision loss if you have diabetes.
Partner With Your Eye Doctor on Diabetes Care
An eye doctor who knows you have diabetes will be better prepared to offer appropriate screenings to look for any changes caused by diabetes and treatment to reduce your risk for vision loss. “Good communication with your eye doctor is essential to detect the source of visual changes and to initiate timely treatment to preserve vision,” Dr. Meyerle says. Develop a good relationship with your eye doctor and inform him or her immediately if you notice any changes in or problems with your vision.
Have Regular Dilated Eye Exams
Talk to your eye doctor about how frequently you should have a dilated eye exam — an exam in which your pupils are dilated to allow for better visualization of the retinas — to uncover any diabetes-related eye problems. “Once-a-year dilation is sufficient for some people with diabetes, but those with diabetic retinopathy may require more frequent dilated examinations, particularly if they’re receiving treatment for the retinopathy,” Meyerle says. Work with your eye doctor to develop and stick to a regular schedule, because early detection can mean better treatment results.
Keep Blood Sugar in Check
High blood sugar levels are responsible for the damage caused to blood vessels in the retina. When your blood sugar is under control, your retinas — and your vision — are protected. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), people with uncontrolled blood sugar levels are four times more likely to develop retinopathy. So monitor your blood sugar regularly, follow a healthy diet and exercise regimen, and take your diabetes medication as directed by your doctor.
Manage Blood Pressure and Cholesterol
“Elevated blood pressure is similar to turning up the faucet and creating more leakage from the damaged blood vessels in the eye,” Meyerle says. “When cholesterol levels are high in the blood, more fatty deposits can leak from the damaged blood vessels.” If your doctor has prescribed cholesterol medication, take it as directed, and remember to follow a heart-healthy diet as suggested by the ADA — one that’s low in salt and fat and rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Boost Eye Health With Your Diet
Sticking to a well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet can protect eye health as well as overall health. In particular, leafy greens and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for eye health, says Jennifer Loh, MD, chief of endocrinology at Kaiser Permanente in Hawaii. Antioxidants such as flavonoids can also help protect vision. Eating a diet high in flavonoid-rich fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk for diabetic retinopathy by 30 percent, according to the results of a study published in the November/December 2014 issue of the Journal of Diabetes Complications.
Quitting smoking is at the top of the list for preventing diabetes eye problems, Dr. Loh says, because “smoking can accelerate the development of diabetic retinopathy and make it more difficult to control blood sugar.” Not to mention that it can increase your chances of having a heart attack or stroke, and people with diabetes are already 1.8 times more likely to have a heart attack and 1.5 times more likely to have a stroke than people without diabetes are, according to the ADA.
Move it, Move it
Your body is made to move, so give it regular exercise. “Exercise can help your body use insulin, which controls your blood sugar, burn extra body fat, strengthen muscles and bones, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, improve blood circulation, decrease stress, and boost energy and mood,” Loh says. If you have proliferative retinopathy — a more serious form diabetic retinopathy in which fragile new cells form on the retinas — avoid vigorous physical activity and heavy weight lifting, both of which can raise blood pressure and cause hemorrhaging.
Sunglasses are more than stylish — they protect eyes from ultraviolet (UV) rays that can cause damage and raise the risk for cataracts, Loh says. People with diabetes are already 60 percent more likely to develop this eye condition, according to the ADA. “Wear sunglasses with 100 percent UV protection whenever you step outside even if it’s cloudy, because UV rays can pass through haze and thin clouds,” she says. This eye protection is even more important when you’re at high altitudes and during the afternoon hours, when UV rays are more intense.
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