This Tuesday, 14 November marks World Diabetes Day, with the 2023 theme “know your risk, know your response” encouraging the global community to raise awareness around the prevention, early diagnosis and timely treatment of a condition that affects around 10 percent of adults worldwide.
Diabetes mellitus is a group of common endocrine diseases characterised by sustained high blood sugar levels, which is due to either the pancreas not producing enough insulin or the cells of the body becoming unresponsive to the hormone's effects.
The major types of diabetes are type 1 and type 2 as well as gestational diabetes, which is a form of the disease that occurs during pregnancy for around 18 percent of women in Australia but which usually resolves shortly after the baby is born.
What is diabetic retinopathy?
“Diabetes not only increases the risk of heart attacks and stroke by up to four times, but it’s also responsible for a large portion of the avoidable vision loss experienced by working-aged Aussies. However, nearly 50 percent of the population say they have never even heard of diabetic retinopathy,” said Lyn Hsieh, optometrist and National Professional Services Advisor at Optometry Australia.
Caused when high sugar content in the blood damages the fine blood vessels in the retina, triggering them to rupture and bleed, diabetic retinopathy results in the swelling of the retina and formation of new blood vessels, which inevitably leads to retina damage and the appearance of spots in a sufferer’s field of vision.
“Anyone living with diabetes is at risk of developing retinopathy; people living with type 1 and 2 diabetes are 25 times more likely to experience vision loss than people living without diabetes. And what’s really concerning is half of all Australians living with diabetes do not get the eye checks they need to prevent diabetes-related sight impairment or blindness.”
As early-stage diabetic retinopathy rarely presents with any noticeable symptoms, regular eye examinations are key to detecting early signs of the condition before it progresses.
With timely detection and treatment, 98 per cent of vision loss from diabetes is preventable.
Signs of diabetic retinopathy
If you know you are living with diabetes, there can be signs that indicate the possible development of diabetic retinopathy.
“Blurred or fluctuating vision, floaters or dots and dark strings in your field of vision, impaired colour vision or partial or total vision loss are all red flags. Should you begin experiencing any of these symptoms, we encourage a visit to your optometrist as a matter of urgency.”
It is critical for people with diabetes to have comprehensive eye examinations with their optometrist at least once a year to assess for signs of potential problems.
The cost of diabetic retinopathy
The total indirect annual cost of vision loss associated with diabetic macular oedema (DME), one of the most common manifestations of diabetic retinopathy, is estimated to be $2.07 billion.
This is more than $28,000 per person with DME.
However, the real life fall out from diabetic retinopathy reaches far beyond dollars and cents.
“Economic impact aside, the psychological cost of receiving a diabetes-related retinopathy diagnosis can be the source of significant emotional stress. This can in turn considerably affect the overall mental health and wellbeing of the patient.”
With more than four in 10 adult Australians with diabetes reporting medium, high or very high levels of psychological distress, research suggests that diabetes doubles the risk of depression compared to those without diabetes.
Please note that if you or someone you know is experiencing mental health issues, it is important to seek professional help. You can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 for support.
Australians with diabetes are encouraged to visit their optometrist yearly for a comprehensive dilated eye exam
“In addition to diabetic retinopathy, other eye conditions like cataracts, dry eye disease, and some types of glaucoma, are also more commonly experienced by those living with diabetes. An optometrist will test for and detect any of these conditions that may also be present as part of a comprehensive eye examination.”
To book in an eye examination, use our Find an Optometrist search tool to locate your nearest optometrist today.
World Diabetes Day resources can be found here.