Diabetic retinopathy — vision-threatening damage to the retina of the eye caused by diabetes — is the leading cause of blindness among working-age Americans, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Yet, many cases could be prevented with regular eye exams and appropriate treatment.
Currently more than 5 million Americans age 40 and older have diabetic retinopathy due to type 1 or type 2 diabetes. And that number will grow to about 16 million by 2050, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC also estimates that nearly 26 million Americans, or 8.3 percent of the U.S. population, had diabetes in 2010, and 79 million Americans adults age 20 or older are at high risk for the disease.
Also, between 12,000 and 24,000 new cases of blindness related to diabetic retinopathy occur in the United States each year, the CDC says.
And both diabetes and obesity (a major risk factor for diabetes) are steadily on the rise in the United States. Data gathered by the United Health Foundation indicate that diabetes affected 8.7 percent of the U.S. population in 2011 (up from 8.3 percent in 2010) — a 4.8 percent increase in one year and a 42.6 percent increase since 2001.
The Foundation also estimates that 27.5 percent of the U.S. adult population were obese in 2011 — a 2.2 percent increase since 2010, and a 37.5 percent increase since 2001.
People who are most vulnerable to diabetic retinopathy, including the elderly and certain minorities, may not receive appropriate eye care because of lack of health insurance or access even to primary care physicians.
For these reasons, make sure you promptly advocate for your own eye health and that of affected family members or friends when any kind of diabetes is present.
Generally, diabetics don’t develop diabetic retinopathy until they have had diabetes for at least 10 years. But it is unwise to wait that long for an eye exam.
With any diagnosis of diabetes, your primary care physician should refer you to an optometrist or ophthalmologist who will give you a dilated eye exam at least once a year.
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