Diabetes & Eyesight: 7 Sight-Saving Strategies to Know

If you have diabetes, you'll want to do everything possible to steer yourself clear of eye problems, a major complication of the disease.

May 17, 2017
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Adapted from Outsmart Diabetes 1-2-3: A 3-Step Plan to Balance Blood Sugar, Lose Weight, and Reverse Diabetes Complications

Diabetes steals the sight of 12,000 to 24,000 people each year and is responsible for 8 percent of blindness in the United States, making it the leading cause of new blindness in people ages 20 to 74, according to the American Diabetes Association.

One problem even reflects in its name the close relationship between diabetes and the eyes: diabetic retinopathy, a catchall term that refers to diabetes-related damage to the retina.  

More: 6 Signs Of Prediabetes You Need To Know

Diabetic retinopathy is the most common complication of type 2 diabetes, currently affecting more than 4.1 million Americans age 40 and older. Up to 21 percent of people with type 2 diabetes already have diabetic retinopa thy by the time they're diagnosed with diabetes. Almost 100 percent of people with type 1 and more than 70 percent with type 2 diabetes eventually develop diabetic retinopathy, in most cases without vision loss, accord- ing to a Johns Hopkins University special report. Nearly 900,000 Americans currently have diabetic retinopathy severe enough to cause vision loss.

Mexican Americans are almost twice as likely to develop diabetic retinopathy, and non-Hispanic blacks are almost 50 percent as likely to develop this condition as non-Hispanic whites.

More: 13 Strategies for Eating Out With Diabetes

Researchers say annual screening for diabetic retinopathy and managing diabetes risk factors will help reduce the possibility of blindness caused by the disease. The following are some of the best sight-saving strategies. 

(Get more tips and advice on preventing and treating diabetes in Outsmart Diabetes 1-2-3: A 3-Step Plan to Balance Blood Sugar, Lose Weight, and Reverse Diabetes Complications)

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Manage your blood sugar

Keep your blood sugar as close to normal as possible to minimize damage from retinopathy and slow its progression (opt for these blood sugar-lowering foods to start). According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of 15,000 people with diabetes, fewer than 45 percent checked their blood sugar levels daily. Without treatment and adequate blood sugar control, diabetic retinopathy usually gets worse.

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Get your vision corrected

People with diabetes who also have vision problems often don't realize their sight will improve with the proper prescription for glasses or contact lenses, according to the CDC research. In the survey, 11 percent of people with diabetes had 20/40 visual acuity or worse in their best eye. (Normal is 20/20.) But 65 percent of those surveyed still didn't have their vision corrected with an accurate prescription.

More: 8 Ways to Slash Your Risk for Diabetes

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Watch your blood pressure

Lowering your blood pressure could save your eyesight, say British scientists. When they compared 758 people with diabetes who strictly controlled their blood pressure (keeping it around 144/82) with those whose levels stayed higher (157/88), the better-controlled group had a 47 percent lower risk of dimmed eyesight. High blood pressure can damage blood vessels in the eyes, explains study author David Matthews, FRCP, chairman of the Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology, and Metabolism. Keep your blood pressure at healthy levels with these natural tactics like exercise; weight loss; plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grains; and, if needed, medication.

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Go fishin’ for better vision

A new major study of mice found that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish protect against the development and progression of retinopathy. In the journal Nature Medicine, the researchers reported that upping omega-3 fatty acids and cutting omega-6 fatty acids (the most common type in the standard American diet) reduced the area of vessel loss that leads to abnormal blood vessel growth and blindness.

More: 7 Myths About Brain-Boosting Omega Fatty Acids

A higher amount of omega-6s contributed to the growth of abnormal blood vessels in the retina. But just a 2 percent bump in dietary omega-3 intake eased the severity of retinopathy by 40 to 50 percent. The promising results may have something to do with the unusually high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids in the retina, reports lead author Kip M. Connor, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at Children's Hospital Boston, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. To get more omega-3s in your diet, go for these healthy foods and fatty fish like mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon.

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Eat a bowl of blueberries

Antioxidants called anthocyanins in red and purple berries may help reduce eye damage from the sun and normal aging, as well as boost healthy blood flow to your eyes. Studies show that these plant pigments may also slow the development of diabetic retinopathy by strengthening blood vessel walls. Along with blueberries (which are one of the best and surprisingly affordable superfoods), fill up on anthocyanin-rich cherries, red grapes (also grape juice and red wine), and pomegranates.

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Munch on nuts

A 5-year Harvard Medical School study found that eating nuts at least once a week slowed vision deterioration by 40 percent. Experts suspect the healthy fat in nuts may prevent excess total fat from clogging the arteries in your eyes, just as it protects the arteries in your heart.

More: 7 Fatty Foods That Blast Belly Fat

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Chill out

Staying relaxed and calm may help bring down your blood sugar levels and, consequently, lower your risk of complications such as diabetic retinopathy and blindness, according to research from the Medical University of Ohio. You can start by trying out these 15 relaxing things you can do before bed. In the 10-week study of 30 people, 15 practiced daily tension-taming exercises, such as muscle relaxation, and had their techniques monitored with weekly 45-minute biofeedback sessions. The other 15 took diabetes education classes.

More: Top 6 Tips for All-Natural Stress Relief

At the end of the study, those who learned to chill out saw about a 10 percent drop in fasting blood sugar and in the level of A1C. "Stress triggers hormones that raise blood sugar," explains lead researcher Ronald McGinnis, MD. "Reducing chronic stress switches this process off." If that's not motivation enough, the relaxation group also experienced a drop in depression and anxiety.

To find a biofeedback therapist, check out the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America, and Find a Practitioner.

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