November is National Diabetes Month, and that means communities across the country are teaming up to raise awareness about the many ways diabetes impacts the lives of Americans. With diabetes causing more deaths per year than breast cancer and AIDS combined, raising awareness is crucial to connecting those at risk with resources to support them.


Most of us know that diabetes has to do with blood sugar and the sugar-processing hormone, insulin. Though the exact reason for diabetic insulin resistance or depletion is still unknown, it appears both genetics and environment factor into the equation.

Those with a family history of diabetes generally have a higher risk of developing the disease. Additionally, specific ethnic populations seem to be at greater risk: the incidence of diabetes is higher among African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asian Americans than it is among Caucasians.

Beyond your body’s genetic code, there are many lifestyle factors that also increase your risk for diabetes. Carrying an increased amount of fatty tissue (being overweight or obese) is a primary risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. Inactivity also tops the list as a significant risk factor because physical activity is the body’s way of using up the glucose in the bloodstream while also making cells more sensitive to insulin. Those over age 45 face an increased risk, possibly because people tend to exercise less and gain weight as they age. Lastly, the same lifestyle issues that cause diabetes also cause pre-diabetes; once you’ve been diagnosed as pre-diabetic, your risk for diabetes increases dramatically.


Over time, uncontrolled blood sugar levels take a toll, and small blood vessels throughout the body begin to weaken and leak, leading to a slew of diabetic complications. The majority of these complications arise in the areas of the body that have the smallest blood vessels, including the brain, feet, kidneys, and eyes.

In the eyes, diabetes can damage the blood vessels found in the retina, the innermost layer of the eye that receives light signals and transmits them to the brain to be processed into images.

As retinal blood vessels weaken, leak and bleed, vision becomes distorted, and blindness can occur. This condition is known as diabetic retinopathy, and, along with glaucoma and cataracts, falls under the umbrella of “diabetic eye disease.” Onset may be slow, but diabetic retinopathy is the most common cause of vision loss and a leading cause of blindness among working-age adults.


The good news is that those living with diabetes can proactively protect their vision. By staying physically active, maintaining a healthy diet, and taking medications as prescribed, it is possible to minimize or possibly even avoid diabetic vision complications.

Because the main symptom of diabetic retinopathy is vision loss, those with diabetes should make a point to schedule a comprehensive, dilated eye exam at least once per year to identify early warning signs. During your eye exam, your optometrist will check for any signs of retinal blood vessel damage or leaking. If detected early enough, some cases of diabetic retinopathy can be addressed with a laser treatment that seals off leaky vessels, halting damage. For those living with diabetes, taking action early and consistently will help keep your vision safe!