Diabetics face many health complications as part of their disease, including the possible loss of eyesight. UAB EyeCare’s Mark Swanson, O.D., reminds diabetics to schedule their yearly exam if they haven’t had one in 2007.

UAB Eye Care’s Mark Swanson is urging diabetics to get their annual eye exam this month.

“Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness for those under 75, so yearly checkups are especially important,” Swanson says. “Research shows getting your eyes checked for diabetic eye diseases is one of the most cost-effective of all medical procedures. You get a lot of mileage out of early detection in preventing end-stage complications. Often people go too long before getting a checkup, and that’s a shame because it’s very treatable if caught at the right stage.”

Diabetes can be a debilitating disease and affects more than 20.8 million children and adults in the United States — 7 percent of the population — according to the American Diabetes Association.

Diabetic eye disease refers to a group of vision problems caused by the disease. All can cause vision loss or blindness. Diabetic eye disease may include:
• Diabetic retinopathy — damage to the blood vessels in the retina.
• Cataract — clouding of the eye lens that can develop at an earlier age in diabetics.
• Glaucoma — increase in fluid pressure inside the eye that damages the optic nerve and impairs vision.

Diabetics are nearly twice as likely to develop glaucoma as other adults, according the National Eye Institute.

Diabetic retinopathy is the most common diabetic eye disease and a leading cause of blindness in American adults. Blood vessels may swell and leak fluid in some people, and abnormal new blood vessels grow on the surface of the retina in others.

Changes in vision may not be noticed at first, but over time vision can worsen and be lost. Diabetic retinopathy usually affects both eyes.

“It’s one of those things where the condition can be there for a while before you have serious problems,” Swanson says. “Changes can be going on in the back of their eyes without any loss of vision. But there are people whose vision will fluctuate from day to day.”

Reaching out to rural areas
Swanson says UAB Eye Care research shows about 70 percent of diabetics in Alabama have their eyes checked. He says those who manage their disease through a good diet and exercise are more likely to regularly see an eye doctor. Reaching the other 30 percent is a difficult task, but one UAB Eye Care is tackling.

In many rural areas of the state there is little or no available eye care. That’s one reason UAB Eye Care conducts vision screenings in the Black Belt and rural parts of Alabama.

Swanson says UAB Eye Care also is developing research projects with corporate partners effort to better reach the under-served. Currently, UAB is examining different ways to screen for diabetic retinopathy using digital cameras and computer systems.

“This may allow for screenings in which we can capture images in a rural community or outside of a major university area like UAB and transfer the images back to the clinic to have them read and examined,” Swanson says.

UAB Eye Care appointments are available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 975-2020 to schedule an appointment or visit www.uab.edu/uabeyecare for more information.