Glaucoma and Diabetes: How You Can Protect Your Eyes

The Importance of Eye Health If You Have Type 2 Diabetes

Close-up of eye
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When is the last time you had an eye exam? Currently, 2.7 million people in the United States over the age of 40 have glaucoma, and the National Eye Institute projects by 2030 the number will reach 4.2 million—a 58 percent increase. An eye exam can help catch early signs, and those with diabetes should be particularly mindful: The American Diabetes Association reports that people with diabetes are 40 percent more likely to develop glaucoma than those without the disease.

If you have diabetes, you should get your eyes examined at least once every two years if you have no evidence of retinopathy and once per year if you have existing eye issues. Damage to the eye can begin before diabetes is diagnosed. Therefore, being proactive is very important for preventing complications. 

According to the World Health Organization, glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness in the world. However, it’s the leading cause of preventable blindness. Early detection by way of dilated eye exams can screen for glaucoma; if detected, treatment can begin right away and prevent further damage. 

What Is Glaucoma? 

Glaucoma is a group of eye conditions where abnormally high pressure builds up in the eye, potentially damaging the optic nerve and resulting in vision loss. There are several different types of glaucoma, but the two main types are referred to as open-angle and angle-closure. 

  • Open-angle: In this type, the angle where the iris meets the cornea is open and wide, as it should be. It is the most common form of glaucoma, affecting about 90 percent of those with the disease. This type of glaucoma progresses slowly. The drainage canals of the eye clog at a slow rate, which increases eye pressure. Someone with open-angle glaucoma is likely to be symptom free. 
  • Angle-closure: This is the less common type of glaucoma where the angle at which the iris meets the cornea is narrowed or closed. It is caused by a blockage of drainage canals, which increases intraocular pressure suddenly. The person will have symptoms and immediate treatment is needed.

Other types of glaucoma include: Normal tension glaucoma, congenital glaucoma, secondary glaucoma, pigmentary glaucoma, pseudoexfoliative glaucoma, traumatic glaucoma, neovascular glaucoma, and irido conral endothelial syndrome (ICE). Learn more about them by visiting the Glaucoma Research Foundation's website.

Will I Automatically Get Glaucoma If I Have Diabetes?

No, a diagnosis of diabetes doesn't automatically mean that you will get eye disease, including glaucoma. Although persons with diabetes are at an increased risk of developing eye disease, you can prevent eye problems. 

How Can I Prevent Eye Problems?

  • Control your numbers: Elevated blood sugar and blood pressure can increase your risk for eye disease. Aim to keep your Hemoglobin A1c <7 percent and your blood pressure as close to normal as possible, less than 140/80. Elevated blood pressure can cause damage to the optic nerve. 
  • Quit smoking: The National Eye institute reports that smoking has been linked to an increased risk of developing age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, and optic nerve damage, all of which can lead to blindness.
  • If you have existing eye problems: Discuss with your physician if you need to avoid certain exercises such as weight lifting and high-impact exercises, which can result in straining the eye. 
  • Get screened regularly: When possible, search for a doctor who is accustomed to taking care of people with diabetes. Medicare covers an annual comprehensive dilated eye exam for some people at higher risk for glaucoma, including those with diabetes, those with a family history of glaucoma, African Americans age 50 and older, and Hispanics/Latinos age 65 and older. If you're not covered under Medicare but have insurance, talk to your carrier. Most cover once-a-year dilated eye exams.
    • Aim to get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at diagnosis. If no issues are found, continue getting exams yearly or bi-yearly. A comprehensive dilated eye exam can reveal more risk factors, such as high eye pressure, thinness of the cornea, and abnormal optic nerve anatomy. The earlier you detect an issue, the sooner you can start treatment and prevent progression. According to the National Eye Institute, medicines in the form of eye drops reduce the risk of developing glaucoma by about half. 
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