Many New Zealanders unaware of diabetic retinopathy risk, a preventable eye disease that can cause blindness

More than a million New Zealanders living with diabetes are at risk of becoming blind due to a preventable condition that often flies under the radar.

A number of Kiwis living with diabetes are unaware of the sight-threatening condition associated with the disease, despite many likely experiencing its symptoms.

New research conducted by Specsavers and Diabetes New Zealand found 83 percent of respondents had experienced one or more symptoms that could be a sign of diabetic retinopathy, a complication of diabetes that if untreated, can lead to irreversible vision loss. 

The disorder can cause a loss of vision, or even blindness, in people with diabetes. The condition is caused by damage to the blood vessels in the retina, the light-sensitive layer of tissue in the back of the eye. Anyone with diabetes can get diabetic retinopathy, including people with type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes.

However, nearly two-fifths (38 percent) of those questioned either had no idea about diabetic retinopathy, or were unsure about the ins-and-outs of the condition.

More than half (55 percent) of respondents said they had, at some point, experienced floaters - spots or dark strings floating in their vision - which is one of the most common symptoms of the disease. Fifty-four percent had noticed blurred vision, 26 percent had fluctuating vision, and 10 percent had experienced vision loss - all of which are possible signs of diabetic retinopathy.

According to the ophthalmology clinic Auckland Eye, it can affect up to 60 percent of patients with long-term type 2 diabetes. After 10 years of the disease, most people with diabetes will have some degree of diabetic retinopathy, but it's not usually sight-threatening.

Diabetes is a serious problem in New Zealand, with more than 1.1 million Kiwis currently living with either diabetes or prediabetes.

"For many years diabetes has been the leading cause of people developing blindness in New Zealand and the link between diabetes and eye damage is well-known," said Diabetes New Zealand chief executive, Heather Verry.

"These new findings from Specsavers reiterate why we must continue to encourage people with or at risk of diabetes to take care of their eyesight. The high numbers unaware of the connection are concerning."

Optometrist Niall McCormack agrees that raising awareness about the impact a diabetes diagnosis can have on an individual's eyesight is critical, and is urging people living with the disease, or with pre-diabetes, to talk early to their GP about how best to manage the condition and associated risks, such as vision issues.

"Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes that affects the eyes. While symptoms or changes to vision may be harmless, they can also indicate an underlying issue and are not to be taken lightly," McCormack explained.

"Worryingly, for many people the condition does not cause any noticeable symptoms so early detection is key to managing diabetic retinopathy."

Diabetes New Zealand and general practitioners typically refer people to their local Diabetes Services Retinal Screening Programme as soon as they are diagnosed.

"Aside from this it is still important for everyone to understand the importance of a regular eye test with their optometrist as other conditions could be detected," McCormack added.

Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy include:

  • spots or dark strings floating in your vision (floaters)
  • blurred vision
  • fluctuating vision (frequent changes in the clarity of vision - a patient may have blurred vision that comes and goes, or any number of other irregularities)
  • dark or empty areas in your vision
  • vision loss.

According to the National Eye Institute, an agency of the US Department of Health and Human Services, diabetic retinopathy is caused by high blood sugar due to diabetes. Over time, having too much sugar in the blood can damage the retina - the part of your eye that detects light and sends signals to the brain through the optic nerve, which is located in the back of the eye.

Diabetes damages blood vessels throughout the body, but the damage to the eyes begins when sugar blocks the tiny blood vessels that go to the retina, causing them to leak fluid or bleed. To make up for these blocked blood vessels, the eyes then grow new blood vessels that don't work as well. These new blood vessels can leak or bleed easily. 

It's recommended that everyone, regardless of whether they have been diagnosed with diabetes, has their eyes tested at least every two years. At Specsavers, an advanced OCT 3D eye scan is included as part of every eye test, which can detect conditions of the eye much earlier.

The research was conducted by 3Gem Research and Insights on behalf of Specsavers among 123 members of the Diabetes New Zealand community.