Should Seniors Worry about Diabetic Retinopathy?

Should Seniors Worry about Diabetic Retinopathy?

Those who have diabetes could face unique health problems as they get older and have lived with diabetes for many years. Diabetic retinopathy is one of those conditions – and it is one of the more frightening ones, considering that the progression of it is completely painless. When there is no pain signal alerting you to something going wrong, it can take a long time to get the issue treated and that can lead to permanent vision damage. However, regular eye exams can help you catch this devastating condition very early, when there is still time to do something about it.

What is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is a progressive eye disease that is caused by diabetes.

When you have diabetes, high blood sugar levels can damage the tiniest blood vessels in your body, such as those in the kidneys or the eyes. The damage to these small blood vessels in the eye, specifically in the retina, can lead to swelling, leaking, and abnormalities in those vessels. The condition gets worse over time and causes vision problems, starting with mild blurriness and, if left untreated, progressing to total blindness.

Seniors are much more susceptible to diabetic retinopathy. Not only do our eyes naturally change with time, but those with a long-standing diabetes diagnosis are more likely to suffer the cumulative effects of the condition. And besides that, they might not know the risks of diabetic retinopathy and thus, put off going to the eye doctor in the belief that their vision problems are just normal signs of aging.

Are You at Risk for Diabetic Retinopathy?

According to the American Society of Retina Specialists, about 8 million Americans currently have diabetic retinopathy, and most of those individuals are elderly. Unfortunately, that number is expected to double by 2050, especially since those over 40 tend to have very little knowledge of the condition and thus don’t take the steps necessary to save their sight as they get older.1

Studies from the CDC have found that diabetic retinopathy affects one-third of adults over age 40 who have a diabetes diagnosis. The problem tends to be much more prevalent among African Americans and Mexican Americans, though scientists have yet to figure out why.2

Obesity appears to contribute to the development of the disease (as well as to the severity of Type 2 diabetes). Smoking, of course, affects every cell in the body in an adverse way, and can make diabetic retinopathy much worse.

Those who are male and have a high A1c level are more susceptible. Those who have had diabetes for a long time, who have high blood pressure, and who use insulin to control their diabetes are more likely to develop diabetic retinopathy.

If you are experiencing any vision problems at all, take steps to stay as safe and secure as possible. A fall alert can help you do that. Having the peace of mind of a medical alert system with fall detection can offer protection whether you are at home or on the go.

The Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy

The only way to be sure you have diabetic retinopathy is through testing at your eye doctor’s office. These simple, non-invasive, and painless tests can quickly determine if they are any changes to your retina or blood vessels that might indicate you have diabetic retinopathy.

Interestingly, those who are first diagnosed with the condition might have near-perfect eyesight and no symptoms at all. It takes some time for the damage to the blood vessels to become serious and irreversible, which means that there is time to treat the problem before it gets worse – but only if you go to the eye doctor and get the diagnosis!

When diabetic retinopathy begins to advance, the Mayo Clinic warns that you might experience:

·        Floaters in your vision. This can take the form of tiny spots or “strings” floating across your field of sight.

·        Blurred vision that might be steady or come and go.

·        Fluctuating vision – one moment it might be just fine, and the next, it’s hard to see.

·        Dark or empty areas in your vision.

·        The loss of vision that slowly, progressively worsens over time.3

It’s very important to remember that these symptoms often show up when diabetic retinopathy is quite advanced. In the earliest stages there are usually no symptoms whatsoever, or nothing that you would consider more significant changes than those the natural aging process of your eyes might bring.

Since diabetic retinopathy can have such varying symptoms, you might never know if you are going to be able to see clearly or not. An emergency alert system can serve as your safety net on those days when your vision is not the best. Though a medical alert device is a good idea anytime, it becomes especially important when you aren’t feeling confident in the placement of your feet or your ability to move around safely.

The Long-Term Consequences of Diabetic Retinopathy

The American Diabetes Association says that up to 21% of those who are first diagnosed with diabetes already have some degree of diabetic retinopathy, and thus need treatment to begin right away.4 That’s troublesome not only because of the damage that might have already been done, but because diabetic retinopathy is just one of the many potential consequences of diabetes. If uncontrolled blood sugar levels have led to vision problems, there could very well be other things going wrong in the body too.

Losing your sight changes the way you approach the world. Performing the activities of daily living can become more difficult when you can’t see well enough for the little things, such as buttoning up a shirt or reading words on a television screen. Your mobility might be affected, as you can no longer easily see obstructions in front of you, especially those that are small, such as a curb of an unusual height or a loose threshold at a doorway, which can lead to serious falls.

And with that comes a loss of independence. Choosing medical alert systems for seniors can help with this problem by making sure you have help right at your fingertips, giving you the peace of mind you need while you deal with the problem at hand.

All of these issues of diabetic retinopathy blend with the frustrations and sadness of losing your sight, which then leads to depression, anxiety, and reduced social interactions. And as the CDC has pointed out, social isolation and loneliness is clearly linked to other serious medical conditions, including an increase in heart disease, stroke, and premature death from a variety of causes.5

Preventing and Treating Diabetic Retinopathy

The first thing all seniors should do – whether they have a diagnosis of diabetes or not – is to make an appointment with the eye doctor and specifically ask for tests that can help determine whether you are at elevated risk for diabetic retinopathy or already have the condition. The sooner you catch the problem, the easier it is to treat.

If you have diabetes, controlling your blood sugar levels can help you avoid many of the consequences of the disease. Talk to your doctor about what you need to do to bring your glucose levels under firm control.

Pay attention to other chronic conditions, too. High cholesterol and high blood pressure are contributing factors to developing retinopathy; keeping them under control can help you avoid a whole host of problems, including issues with vision.

There are many treatment options available, but keep in mind that the earlier you catch the problem and the sooner you begin treating it, the easier those treatment options are. For instance, medicated eye drops can help, as can laser therapy (also known as photocoagulation), which seals the leaking blood vessels and keeps vision problems from getting worse.

Other options for advanced retinopathy include injections of anti-VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) to ease swelling and stop the growth of abnormal blood vessels. Surgery on the eye to drain the blood leaking from the vessels, as well as to remove scar tissue, might help to restore some of the sight lost or prevent you from losing even more of your vision.

An Ounce of Prevention…

Prevention is always better than cure, and that is certainly the case with diabetic retinopathy. It’s so important to have regular eye examinations and to ask your eye doctor if you might have the warning signs of retinopathy. If you haven’t seen your eye doctor in the past year, why not make that appointment right now?

It’s also important to visit your primary care physician on a regular basis to catch and treat underlying problems that can contribute to diabetic retinopathy. Though obviously diabetes is the main culprit, other conditions can make the problem worse, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol – two very common conditions among the elderly. For the good health of your eyes (and the rest of you), make that appointment today and stay on top of senior whole health.