Diabetes is a common, chronic condition that affects the body’s ability to control sugar levels. This can be due to autoimmune damage to the pancreas (Type 1 diabetes), or due to decreased effects of insulin (a natural hormone in the body that regulates blood sugar concentrations) due to poor diet, such as in the much more common Type 2 diabetes. Both these types of diabetes are associated with a wide range of complications, such as kidney disease or diabetic eye diseases.
The most recent data on diabetes in Australia estimates that 898,800 Australians have been diagnosed with diabetes at some time in their lives. Of these, 87% had Type 2 diabetes (787,500 people) and 10% (87,100 people) had Type 1 diabetes.
People living with Type 1 diabetes represents 0.4% of the Australian population. The cause of Type 1 diabetes is not well understood, but is due to both genetic and environmental factors.
Type 2 diabetes is much more common than Type 1 and rates are higher in outer regional or remote areas than in cities. It is more common in men and in people over 35 years old. Rates of Type 2 diabetes are steadily increasing worldwide.
How diabetes affects eye health
In the United States, diabetes is the leading cause of blindness between the ages of 20 and 74. This is because diabetes can damage the tiny, delicate blood vessels that supply the retina at the back of the eye. This can in turn cause damage to the cells of the retina, which are responsible for normal sight. Disrupting normal blood flow to these cells can cause permanent blindness.
This process is called diabetic retinopathy and it is a common complication of all forms of diabetes, particularly if it is not well treated and sugar levels are not well controlled. It is estimated that of all diabetics in the world, approximately one-third of them have some form of diabetic retinopathy. About 10% of diabetics have a level of diabetic retinopathy that is threatening their vision.
This form diabetic retinopathy can also progress to a more dangerous form, called proliferative diabetic retinopathy. In this form, not enough blood is reaching the cells of the retina and they become deprived of oxygen. In an effort to provide more oxygen, the retina starts to grow new, fragile blood vessels to reach those cells. However, these new blood vessels also have a strong tendency to rupture and bleed, causing further damage to the retina. In extreme cases, these new blood vessels can lead to retinal detachment from the inside of the eyeball altogether, causing blindness.
One of the chief problems in preventing and treating all forms diabetic retinopathy is that you may have no obvious symptoms in the early stages. Unless an eye specialist does a thorough eye examination regularly, diabetic retinopathy may be progressing without you realizing it. It is therefore essential that all people with diabetes get regular screening for diabetic retinopathy done by an eye specialist.