For people with diabetes and health professionals, methods to prevent diabetic retinopathy are high on the radar. Diabetic retinopathy, the most common diabetes eye disease, is one of the leading causes of blindness. The retina of the eye is essential to good vision. But, when you have diabetes, high blood glucose levels damage tiny blood vessels in the retina causing them to swell and leak, and scar tissue to develop.

In some cases, blood vessels may also become plugged and prevent the flow of blood. In some cases, new, fragile blood vessels grow on the retina and eventually leak. Diabetic retinopathy can also affect the macula—the part of the retina where vision is the sharpest.

The National Eye Institute estimates that 40 to 45 percent of people diagnosed with diabetes have some degree of diabetic retinopathy. Your risk increases the longer you have diabetes, and it's common for people to develop some type of diabetic changes to their retina after 20 years of having the disease.

Because diabetic retinopathy doesn't have symptoms in the early stages, you could have the condition and not know it. As the condition progresses, retinopathy symptoms include blurred vision, dark streaks, floaters in your eye, poor night vision, and loss of vision.

The best treatment for diabetic eye diseases is prevention. For instance, controlling your blood glucose levels can prevent diabetic retinopathy or slow its progression. Here are seven key ways to protect your vision:

• Keep your blood glucose levels as normal as possible. Monitor it daily, take medication and make dietary and lifestyle changes that help to control your blood sugar levels.

• Maintain normal blood pressure. Hypertension on its own can damage your eyes. But it can also increase the risk of diabetic retinopathy and exacerbate the condition once you have it.

• Stop smoking. Cigarette smoking worsens conditions such as high blood pressure and disorders of the small blood vessels.

• Don't drink. Alcohol has an adverse effect on your blood glucose levels. One study showed that heavy alcohol consumption significantly increased the risk of developing severe diabetic retinopathy.

• Control cholesterol. Studies have linked lipid levels and cholesterol in the blood to diabetic retinopathy. Reduce cholesterol in your diet and speak to your doctor about cholesterol-reducing drugs to prevent diabetic retinopathy.

• Have frequent eye exams. While doctors recommend annual eye exams for the general public, if you have diabetes you should schedule more frequent eye tests. According to the National Eye Institute, even people with advanced stages of diabetic retinopathy can avoid blindness with timely treatment and follow-up care.

• Ask your doctor about benfotiamine. Studies have shown that this supplement - which is a soluble form of thiamine, or vitamin B1 - blocks common causes of diabetes-related eye disease. It has been used for decades in Japan and Europe to prevent diabetic retinopathy, but isn't yet approved by the FDA. It's currently in phase 3 clinical trials, but in the meantime, it's available health stores and online.

Study References:

Journal: British Medical Journal (Clin Res Ed), Vol. 288(6423), pp. 1035-1037

Study Date: April 1984

Study Name: Alcohol: another risk factor for diabetic retinopathy?


Authors: R. J. Young, D. K. McCulloch, R. J. Prescott, and B. F. Clarke