The Medical Minute: Diabetic eye

November 11, 2008

November is Diabetes Awareness Month, a disease that affects about 23.6 million Americans. One of the potential complications of the disease is diabetic retinopathy, which damages the blood vessels in the retina in the eye. The disease affects those with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of new blindness among adults between 20 and 74 years old. The onset of retinopathy is influenced by how long one has had diabetes, if the diabetes is poorly controlled, high blood pressure, lipid abnormalities, kidney disease or congestive heart failure.

Those with diabetes are 25 times more likely than the general population to go blind. While the cause of retinopathy is not known, it does not occur in isolation. The disease is impacted by the overall health of the individual; hence diabetes management is key to prevention.

Daily self-management, including attention to an appropriate diet, exercise, adherence to medications and blood glucose monitoring, is the key to good health. Complications can be avoided by asking your doctor how often you need your hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) level checked.  The HbA1c is a measure of average blood glucose during the previous 2 to 3 months, LDL cholesterol (lower than 100) and blood pressure (less than 130/80) levels.

Since symptoms of vision loss may not appear early in the disease, annual comprehensive eye examinations are critical to promoting early detention and treatment.  Those with type 1 diabetes should have a yearly eye exam beginning five years after diabetes diagnosis. Those with type 2 should receive an eye exam at the time of diagnosis and then yearly.

Penn State Institute for Diabetes and Obesity and Penn State Hershey Eye Center at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center is conducting research into diabetic retinopathy. Work by members of the Penn State Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Diabetic Retinopathy Research Center is focused on the mechanisms of cellular injury in the retina which lead to retinopathy.

To receive the Penn State Hershey Diabetes Playbook, a free educational resource about controlling diabetes, visit

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Last Updated March 19, 2009