Diabetes is a leading cause of blindness in people of working age in the UK. There are 4.7 million of us who live with diabetes in the UK, which is set to rise to 5.5 million by 2030.1
To mark World Diabetes Day this year, we’re starting the conversation about how and why the condition affects the eyes and what you can do to prevent and sight loss.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a lifelong condition that causes a person's blood sugar level to become too high. There are two types, type 1 where the body's immune system attacks and destroys the cells that produce insulin, and type 2, where the body doesn’t produce enough insulin, or the body's cells do not react to insulin.
Type 2 diabetes is much more common than type 1. Around 90% of all adults with diabetes have type 2 in the UK.2
How does diabetes affect the eyes?
More than 1,700 people have their sight seriously affected by their diabetes every year in the UK.3
Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes, caused by high blood sugar levels damaging the back of the eye (retina). We have many blood vessels in our eyes that help supply blood to the seeing part of the eye, but when these blood vessels are damaged, the retina can’t get the blood it needs and can’t work properly, which effects our sight.
Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy don’t always present themselves until damage to the eyes has already been done, and if it’s left undiagnosed and untreated, it can cause blindness.
Diabetes makes you 1.5x more likely to get glaucoma and 2x more likely to get cataracts. Both can lead to blindness.
What can I do to keep my eyes healthy?
Research has shown that you can reduce your chances of developing eye damage from diabetes by making a few changes to your lifestyle.
- Control your blood sugars
Keeping your blood sugars, blood pressure, and cholesterol (blood fat levels) in a healthy range will reduce the chance of developing conditions that damage not only your eyes, but your body too. Make sure you know your target levels and regularly check your blood sugars to help you keep on top of them.
- Have you regular eye screening
Make sure you attend you regular eye screening. It’ critical to prevent or delay damage to the eyes that can lead to loss of sight. Diabetic retinopathy often doesn’t show any signs until the damage is done, but you can prevent serious damage by going to your screening. Take a look at what to expect at your screening.
- Keep active
We all know that exercise is good for us, but keeping our activity levels up can be a challenge in our modern sedentary lifestyles. If you’re not a gym goer or into sports, walking is an easy form of exercise to get to your activity levels up. Here’s some top tips to keep moving:
- Try walking instead of taking the car or public transport
- If you have to drive somewhere, try parking a little further away
- Take the stairs instead of the lift
Take a look at the NHS guidelines for how much exercise you should be doing.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet
There’s lots of evidence that shows eating healthily can help with blood sugar levels, blood pressure, cholesterol and maintaining a healthy weight. But eating healthily doesn’t have to be boring – there’s loads of tasty, healthy meals out there, so do a little research before your next food shop and try a brand new recipe – you might find a new family favourite. Take a look at the NHS guidelines on eating well.
- Quit smoking
Smoking is one of the biggest causes of death and illness in the UK. It increases your risk of developing more than 50 serious health conditions and causes around 78,000 deaths in the UK every year.4 If that’s not enough reason to put down the cigs, smoking increases your blood pressure, making it harder for you to manage your diabetes.
Trying to change too much at once isn’t easy, so set small, achievable goals and work your way up from there. Making healthy lifestyle choices won’t just prevent eye damage and help you control your diabetes, it will lower your risk of developing so many health problems.
To find out more about eye news and science, check out our blog.