Maintaining optimal eye health with diabetes

  • Jan. 13, 2016 4:17 p.m.

Every November marks Diabetes Awareness Month, but how critical blood sugar management is for those living with diabetes is of course a message that needs to be emphasized through the year.

An estimated 3.4 million Canadians are living with diabetes.

The Canadian Diabetes Association continues to team up with Alberta doctors of optometry to educate Red Deer residents about the risk factors associated with the development of the disease.

Type 1 diabetes prevents the body from producing insulin, and Type 2 diabetes prevents the body from properly using insulin or making enough of it, explained Debra Jakubec, regional director Alberta and Northwest Territories at the Canadian Diabetes Association. “This leads to high levels of sugar in the bloodstream, which causes damage to organs, blood vessels and nerves.”

There is no known cause or cure for Type 1 diabetes. Type 2 is caused by a number of factors, which may include ethnicity, family history, socioeconomic status and environment.

Diabetes and its complications can also affect many parts of the eye, the most serious condition being diabetic retinopathy. If left untreated, can result in blindness.

“Diabetic retinopathy occurs when there is a weakening or swelling of the tiny blood vessels in the eye, resulting in fluid leakage, the growth of new blood vessels and other changes,” said Dr. Kevin Hesterman, a Red Deer doctor of optometry at the Red Deer Eye Care Centre.

He added one of the places Type 2 diabetes is often diagnosed is during an eye exam, as a common symptom is a negative impact on vision.

“In the early stages, diabetic retinopathy is monitored through annual eye health examinations – but if necessary, it may be treated with intraocular injections or laser therapy that seals off leaking blood vessels,” he said. “High blood sugar damages the blood vessels throughout our bodies. Leakage can damage these delicate structures throughout the body,” he said.

Like most chronic diseases, early detection and proper management of diabetes is key to decreasing complications such as vision loss and blindness. “The blood vessel leakage and swelling actually causes damage to those retinal cells.”

Hesterman said that there are things that can increase the risk of eye damage in those with diabetes as well, including smoking and high blood pressure. “Drinking alcohol can also increase your risk of diabetic retinopathy.”

Meanwhile, some of the most common signs and symptoms of diabetes include unusual thirst, frequent urination, weight change (gain or loss), extreme fatigue or lack of energy, blurred or fluctuating vision, frequent or recurring infections, cuts and bruises that are slow to heal, tingling or numbness in the hands or feet; and trouble getting or maintaining an erection.

Some people can go lengthy periods of time with Type 2 diabetes without even knowing it. “Often the symptoms can be quite quiet and go undiagnosed for months or even years. So the message is to check with your physician regularly and to make sure you get comprehensive eye exams.”

If you have any of these symptoms, it is important to contact your health care provider right away. It’s also important to recognize that many people who have Type 2 diabetes may display no symptoms.

The Canadian Diabetes Association recommends that anyone aged 40 and older should get checked.

“I can tell you of several instances when a patient has come in for a routine eye exam and an unusual fluctuation in their vision – they just thought their glasses prescription had changed – and it changed in a way that was unusual. Sometimes their vision actually gets better,” he said. “But as the blood sugars go up, in some cases quite extremely, it causes a change in the way the eye focuses.

“Often in those cases we will send the patient back to their physicians and have blood work ordered. Sure enough, it’s often diabetes.”

To learn more about your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes take the test at