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University of Iowa Release

Oct. 29, 2003

Millions At Risk For Diabetes-Related Vision Loss

Approximately 10.3 million Americans have diabetes, and more than half are at risk for vision loss because they do not know they have the disease.

"This is a tragedy waiting to happen because people with diabetes can develop diabetic retinopathy, a degenerative disease of the retina (the sensitive area at the back of the eye), which affects more than five million Americans ages 18 and older," said A. Tim Johnson, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor (clinical) of ophthalmology and visual sciences in the University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and service director of the Comprehensive Ophthalmology Clinic at UI Hospitals and Clinics.

More than one-third of those diagnosed with diabetes do not adhere to vision care guidelines by obtaining a dilated eye exam every year. As part of November's Diabetic Eye Disease Awareness Month, ophthalmologists across the country are urging Americans diagnosed with diabetes to have a dilated eye exam every year.

The longer a person has diabetes, the greater his or her risk is for developing diabetic retinopathy. However, diabetic retinopathy does not only affect people who have had diabetes for many years. It can also appear within the first year or two after the onset of the disease. For some people, diabetic retinopathy is one of the first signs that they have diabetes.

High blood sugar levels can weaken blood vessels in the eye's retina, causing them to leak blood or fluid. This causes the retina to swell and form deposits that can lead to vision loss. Blood sugar fluctuations can also promote growth of new, fragile blood vessels on the retina, which can break and leak blood into the vitreous (the clear, jelly-like substance that fills the center of the eye). This can also blur vision and lead to permanent vision impairment.

What are the signs to look for?

"Because fluctuations in blood sugar levels can temporarily affect vision, it's sometimes hard to know if a serious eye problem is developing," Johnson said. "That's one of the reasons good control of your blood sugar is so important. If you notice a vision change in one eye -- a change that lasts more than a day or two or a change not associated with fluctuations in blood sugar -- call your eye specialist promptly."

More information is available online at

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