Specsaver optometrists say they are treating more than 700 patients each week for diabetic retinopathy, the leading cause of preventable blindness in New Zealand.
As many as one in three Kiwis with diabetes has some sign of the condition but Specsavers, New Zealand's largest eye health provider, say there are some easy steps that can be taken to help avoid the problem – and prevent up to 98 per cent of severe vision loss.
It's a pressing issue – more than 250,000 Kiwis live with diabetes today, an increasingly concerning health problem in New Zealand. Official projections estimate that this will swell to 430,000 people (or 7 per cent of the population) by 2040.
But what many Kiwis might not know is that one of the most common complications associated with diabetes is also the leading cause of preventable blindness in adults.
Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes that affects the eyes, caused by a blockage or damage to the blood vessels in the retina at the back of the eye and depriving the eye's blood supply. In response, new blood vessels will grow which can be fragile, leaking blood into the centre of the eye – causing blurred vision and blindness.
In its early stages, diabetic retinopathy often has no symptoms; some patients may not recognise they have a problem with their eyes until it progresses to an advanced stage. If left untreated, it can lead to irreversible blindness. However, with early detection and treatment, many Kiwis can have a different eye health future.
"You may not even know you have it," Specsavers optometrist Niall McCormack says. "Some patients with diabetic retinopathy might not experience any symptoms. Others might experience worsening vision, sudden vision loss, floaters, blurriness, dark areas of vision or difficulty recognising colours."
He says early detection is key to managing diabetic retinopathy and the earlier it can be detected, the easier it can be to manage it.
"If diabetic retinopathy is picked up early enough it can normally be treated with careful diabetes management. Advanced cases may require laser treatment, eye injections or surgery by an ophthalmologist."
"Unfortunately, even individuals with well-controlled diabetes can develop diabetic retinopathy, so regular screenings are critically important, regardless of any symptoms."
An alarming prediction from Diabetes New Zealand states an expected increase by as much as 90 per cent over the next 20 years, with an estimated one in four New Zealanders already living with undiagnosed pre-diabetic symptoms.
"If you are living with diabetes, your eyes are at risk of damage from diabetic retinopathy. Many people with diabetes might not know they need to have their eyes checked. I recommend all patients with diabetes or with a family history of diabetes keep their eye checks front of mind," McCormack says.
"Diabetes can be detected in an eye test, so this simple test can really help save a person's vision or even their life. For a person living with diabetes, it's important to manage blood sugar levels, lead a healthy lifestyle, and get your eyes tested every two years.
"Diabetic retinopathy can progress without much fanfare, it's increasingly critical it is detected as early as possible. If we detect problems early then patients can get early treatment, damage can be prevented and they can keep their sight."
All Specsavers stores have hospital-grade technology to help their optometrists detect diabetic retinopathy – and other sight-threatening eye conditions – early through an advanced 3D scan of the back of the eye.
Top tips to manage diabetes and keep eyes healthy:
- Manage blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol
- Have a healthy diet
- Maintain an active lifestyle
- If you're a smoker, discuss quitting with your GP
- Have eyes tested regularly
For more information: specsavers.co.nz