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Diabetic retinopathy is one of the most common and debilitating complications of diabetes. During National Diabetes Month, the National Eye Institute (NEI), a part of the National Institutes of Health, is encouraging people with diabetes to get annual dilated eye exams and take steps to avoid vision loss.
About 28.5 percent of U.S. adults age 40 and older with diabetes have diabetic retinopathy, a condition that causes blood vessels of the retina to swell and leak fluid. The retina is the light-sensing layer of tissue in the back of the eye. As the disease progresses, blood vessels become blocked and rupture or new vessels grow on the retina, leading to permanent and sometimes profound vision loss.
People with diabetes are at greater risk for cataracts, which cause clouding of the eye lens, and glaucoma, which damages the optic nerve. In the United States, diabetes is the leading cause of blindness among working-age adults.
People with diabetes can take steps to prevent complications of diabetes. In addition to controlling blood glucose and blood pressure through healthy eating, adequate exercise, and medication, people with diabetes should have annual dilated eye exams to identify signs of diabetic retinopathy, which usually has no symptoms until vision loss occurs. Comprehensive dilated eye exams allow eye care professionals to monitor the eye, including the retina, for signs of disease. Ninety percent of diabetes-related blindness is preventable through early detection, timely treatment, and appropriate follow-up care.
The NEI supports research aimed at understanding, preventing, and treating diabetic retinopathy.
The Action to Control Cardiovascular Risk in Diabetes (ACCORD) Eye Study, sponsored in part by the NEI, showed that intensive control of blood glucose and blood lipids, including cholesterol, slows the progression of diabetic retinopathy.
The NEI Diabetic Retinopathy Clinical Research Network (DRCR.net) is an NEI-sponsored collaboration of more than 300 physicians at more than 100 clinical sites across the United States. Since 2002, DRCR.net has coordinated 18 clinical studies investigating treatments for various diabetes-related conditions, including a condition that causes central vision loss called macular edema.
A recent DRCR.net study of people with diabetic macular edema showed that about 50 percent of participants treated with eye injections of the drug Lucentis combined with conventional laser treatment had dramatic improvements in vision, compared to about 30 percent of participants who received laser treatment alone. This is the first new treatment for diabetic eye disease in 25 years.
The NEI provides resources to health professionals and the public to educate and increase awareness of diabetic eye disease through its National Eye Health Education Program (NEHEP).
During National Diabetes Month, NEHEP is targeting those at increased risk of vision loss from diabetes by raising awareness of the importance of early detection among health providers, who play a crucial role in motivating patients to protect their eyes. According to an NEI survey, 96 percent of adults said they would get a comprehensive dilated eye exam if their health care provider suggested they get one. People at highest risk of vision loss and blindness from diabetes include African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, and Alaskan Natives.
NEHEP is distributing free diabetic eye disease resources to health professionals and community organizations serving people with diabetes. Resources include teaching tools for community health workers, cards to promote the Medicare benefit available to people with diabetes, and other educational materials. All resources are available in English and Spanish.
To learn more about NEHEP resources and to obtain materials, visit www.nei.nih.gov/nehep.
To help a friend or family member learn more about diabetic eye disease, send them a free e-card, in English or Spanish, by going to www.nei.nih.gov/diabetes/ecards/english/.