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December 28, 2010 > Diabetes Raises the Risk for Eye Problems

Diabetes Raises the Risk for Eye Problems

Learn How to Protect Your Vision at Washington Hospital Seminar

Diabetes can take a serious toll on your body, including your eyes. Too much glucose, or blood sugar, in the body can damage blood vessels and organs like the heart, kidney and eyes.

"Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in middle-aged people," said Dr. Steven Andersen, an ophthalmologist who is on staff at Washington Hospital. "It is one of the most common causes of blindness in the elderly."

He will present "Keys to Healthy Eyes," part of Washington Hospital's free Diabetes Matters education series. The class is scheduled for Thursday, January 6, from 7 to 8 p.m., at the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium at Washington West, 2500 Mowry Avenue, in Fremont. You can register online at or call (510) 745-6556 for more information.

Andersen will talk about some of the eye problems that are common among people with diabetes, which occurs when the body does not produce enough insulin or is not able to use it properly. Insulin helps the body process glucose, which fuels the body. When this process doesn't work properly, glucose levels can get abnormally high.

People with diabetes have a higher risk for cataracts and glaucoma, according to Andersen. While everyone can get cataracts as they age, people with diabetes tend to get cataracts at a younger age, he said.

"Cataracts happen when the lens of the eye becomes cloudy," Andersen explained. "The theory is that abnormal metabolism of high glucose levels speeds up this process, causing cataracts sooner."

Glaucoma usually starts from pressure building up in the eyes. Over time, this pressure damages the optic nerve in the eye.

"We think the risk for glaucoma is higher because diabetes affects the blood
vessels that keep the optic nerve healthy," he said.

Diabetes Retinopathy

Andersen will spend most of the session talking about diabetic retinopathy, the most common eye problem caused by diabetes. The retina is the lining at the back of the eye. It converts light rays into electrical signals and sends them to the brain through the optic nerve. The retina is where most problems leading to vision loss occur, according to Andersen.

"The eye basically works like a camera," he explained. "The lens is in the front and focuses the light. The retina functions like the film."

The retina is partially made up of tiny blood vessels that are easy to damage, according to Andersen. These blood vessels can swell and weaken. Some blood vessels may become clogged, blocking the flow of blood.

"As the problem gets worse, the body may attempt to grow new blood vessels," Andersen said. "But these new blood vessels are weak. They start to leak and even break."

When left untreated, the swollen and weak blood vessels can form scar tissue and pull the retina from the back of the eye, which can cause blindness and may require surgery to repair.

Because there are no symptoms at the early stages of these eye problems, they can progress without detection, Andersen said. That's why it's critical for people with diabetes to get annual eye exams. Early detection improves treatment options and can prevent blindness, he added.

"The best way for people with diabetes to protect their eyesight is to get an eye exam every year and keep blood glucose levels normal," Andersen said. "Research shows that when diabetes is under control, the risk for eye problems goes way down."

He will remind the group that eating a proper diet, exercising, and keeping blood pressure and cholesterol levels under control are all important for good health, including eye health.

To find out about other diabetes programs, visit

Come to the Diabetes Support Group

Success in managing diabetes has a lot to do with receiving and giving social support. For people who suffer from diabetes, The Washington Outpatient Diabetes Center offers a support group that allows people to have in-depth conversations about what's happening in their lives and share information about dealing with diabetes in a positive and caring environment.

The support group meetings are held at 8 p.m. every month immediately following the hour-long Diabetes Matters lecture which begins at 7 p.m. the first Thursday of each month. Family members and friends are also welcome. For more information about the support group or other classes and programs, call the Diabetes Services program at (510) 745-6556 or visit

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