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Diabetes? Keep an Eye on Your Eyes

If you are one of more than 25 million Americans with diabetes, you may already know the importance of watching your diet and keeping track of your blood sugar. But did you know it’s also important to have regular eye exams?

In the United States, diabetic eye disease is the leading cause of vision loss among working-age adults. Diabetic retinopathy is the most common form of this disease and affects about 28.5 percent of Americans with diabetes age 40 and older. That’s more than 7 million people, and the number is expected to reach more than 11 million by the year 2030.

The condition can creep up quietly as it gradually weakens small blood vessels in and around the retina, the light-sensing layer of tissue at the back of the eye. If the disease progresses, these vessels may rupture and leak blood into the eye; they can also spread and grow on the surface of the retina and cause scarring.

Typically, diabetic retinopathy has no symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage. But the disease can be detected early through a comprehensive dilated eye exam. In this procedure, an eye professional will put drops in your eye to dilate (widen) the pupil, which allows a closer look at the retina.

Interestingly, the eyes can act as a window to other health issues as well. For example, SEARHC optometrist Dr. Hanna Fylpaa teaches patients that changes to small blood vessels in the eye likely mean changes to small blood vessels in other parts of the body, such as the kidneys which is an extremely important consideration for those with diabetes.

The good news is the risk of severe vision loss from diabetic retinopathy reduces by 95 percent with early detection, timely treatment, and appropriate follow-up. There are several effective treatment options including laser surgery and injections of anti-VEGF drugs which block a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) that can cause abnormal blood vessels to grow and leak fluid.

If you have diabetes, please remember these health tips: 

  • Get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year.
  • Control your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. By controlling your diabetes, you’ll reduce your risk of diabetic eye disease.
  • Talk to your eye care professional about diabetic retinopathy.
  • Learn more about diabetic eye disease from the National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health (http://www.nei.nih.gov/diabetes).
  • Learn more about preventing and managing diabetes from the National Diabetes Education Program (http://ndep.nih.gov).

 What you may not know about the Eye Clinics at SEARHC:

  • SEARHC Eye Clinics are located in Sitka, Juneau, and Klawock. SEARHC optometrists also travel to Haines, Hoonah, Kake, Petersburg, Wrangell, and Angoon so patients with (or without) diabetes may schedule an eye exam at those field clinics as well.
  • When traveling to MEH or ELMC for any other appointments patients can also schedule an eye exam. There is no referral required.
  • All SEARHC Eye Clinics have same-day access for emergencies.
  • SEARHC Eye Clinics are preferred provider locations for SEARHC Guardian Vision Insurance.
  • We carry Medicaid glasses and patients with most forms of Medicaid can have an exam, and Medicaid will pay for a pair of glasses.
  • Patients in HRSA communities may be eligible to receive up to $225 towards a pair of glasses after having an eye exam based on a sliding fee scale.


Hanna Fylpaa, OD reviewed the information presented here.


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