By the end of 2017, the International Diabetes Federation recorded 117,000 adults with diabetes in Trinidad and Tobago, or 12% of the adult population. A 2010 study by Kenwyn Nicholls, M.D., M.P.H estimated that diabetes was attributed to 1 in every 4 hospital admissions and was the number one cause of blindness in our country. Colloquially known as ‘sugar’, diabetes is thus very common in our population, yet not properly understood.
Diabetes occurs when your blood glucose (or sugar) is too high, and usually comes as a result of your body not producing enough insulin, which is the hormone responsible for helping the glucose in food get into your cells to be used as energy. While this may sound like a simple issue, the impact of diabetes’ symptoms is often life-changing and poor insulin production can lead to several other health issues such as heart disease, stroke and kidney disease.
The most common types of diabetes are Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. Type 1 relates to your body not producing insulin at all and is usually diagnosed in children and young adults, though it can appear at any age. Type 2 diabetes refers to your body not making or using insulin well and occurs most commonly in middle-aged and older people. Type 2 is the most common form of diabetes.
As mentioned, diabetes is the number one cause of blindness in T&T and can have a host of other eye-related issues such as:
- Blurry Vision
Increased glucose levels can cause your lens to swell, which results in blurred vision. As a result, it is advised to check your blood sugar before an eye exam, as your prescription may be inaccurate.
While anyone can develop cataract (cloudiness of your eye’s lens that reduces your vision), diabetic people are more likely to get cataract earlier and have it get worse faster.
Glaucoma occurs due to internal eye pressure damaging the optic nerve, which is responsible for sending images to your brain. Glaucoma can cause permanent vision loss or total blindness and its likelihood of occurring increases with diabetes.
- Diabetic Retinopathy
Also known as ‘diabetic eye disease’, diabetic retinopathy is caused by damage to the retina’s blood vessels, due to high blood sugar levels. As the retina is responsible for focusing the light that enters your eye, damage to it can lead to blindness. Untreated diabetic retinopathy is one of the main causes of blindness.
- Diabetic Maculopathy
This is caused by retinopathy and occurs when the macula – the part of the retina that provides our central vision, which is used for activities such as reading, watching TV or driving – is damaged. This damage reduces our sharp vision and can have knock on damage to other areas of the eye, such as the fovea.
The above effects of diabetes can happen over time and be difficult to treat. The good news is that prevention is relatively easy and if done correctly, greatly reduces your risk of suffering from diabetes and improves your eye health. The following are some of the main prevention tips:
Check your risk of diabetes – You are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes if you are age 45 or older, are overweight, smoke and don’t engage in much physical activity. Genetic factors such as a family history of diabetes also play a part. Assessing your risk via a doctor’s visit is the best way to determine how likely you are to develop diabetes.
Get a comprehensive eye exam – You should have an annual eye exam by a certified opthamologist or optometrist who will be able to detect any signs of damage before it becomes a serious issue.
Control your blood sugar – Eating sugary foods and refined/simple carbs such as white bread, pizza dough, pasta, white rice and pastries can significantly increase your blood sugar level. Over time, this can lead to type 2 diabetes. Reducing your sugar and carb intake will reduce your risk of diabetes.
Quit smoking – Smoking greatly increases the risk of diabetic retinopathy and other diabetes-related eye diseases.
Manage your weight – Excess body fat, especially around the midsection, promotes insulin resistance, which leads to Type 2 diabetes. Studies have shown that losing weight can significantly reduce the risk of diabetes.
Exercise Regularly – Regular physical activity increases insulin secretion and sensitivity, which can help prevent the onset of diabetes. Exercise also has additional benefits to your eye health such as lowering eye pressure and decreasing your risk of developing age-related cataract.