Blood sugar levels can affect everything from our kidneys to our eyesight. Diabetic eye disease is one of the most common complications of type 1 diabetes (T1D) and one that we’re set on preventing.
But why can T1D lead to eye disease? High blood-glucose levels can weaken the blood vessels in the eye, causing them to leak fluid. When that fluid builds up and new, more fragile blood vessels grow, the vision centers in the eye can be blocked, leading to low vision or even blindness.
Thankfully, the risks of eye disease have decreased dramatically in the last thirty years thanks to early screenings and treatments like these:
JDRF-supported research has found that a particular protein, VEGF, stimulates the growth of abnormal blood vessels in the eye. Anti-VEGF therapies reduce this protein and promote healthy regrowth instead. However, these therapies are not a complete solution — right now, 50 percent of people who receive this treatment are still left with some vision impairment.
Laser therapy is a common way to treat any number of eye diseases. With photocoagulation, a laser treatment is used to seal leaking blood vessels and stop any future damage. Because this treatment cannot restore vision that is already lost, it is essential to have regular eye exams and start treatment as soon as changes are discovered.
High blood sugar can also cause the macula (the part of the retina that provides clear central vision) to swell. Doses of an anti-inflammatory steroid drug can help combat this. These steroids are strong and effective, but there are possible side effects like the risk of developing other eye diseases such as glaucoma and cataracts. Steroids are often used in conjunction with other therapies.
These treatments are not without their risks, and ultimately the best way to tackle diabetic eye disease is to prevent it. However, we’ve come a long way. Thirty-five years ago, the risk of vision loss from diabetic eye disease was 50 percent. Now, therapies like these have cut the risk to only 5 percent — and we are funding research that could eliminate the remaining risk altogether.