“When it comes to diabetes-related vision loss, the good news is it is largely preventable. Unfortunately, many seniors in California are simply not aware that they need these eye exams,” said Rahul N. Khurana, MD, CAEPS president. “We are encouraging seniors—indeed, all Californians with diabetes—to take a minute to think about whether they have had an exam within a year, and if not, to make an appointment as soon as possible.”
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes can affect the small blood vessels in the eyes, causing them to leak and grow irregularly. This leads to vision loss if left untreated. This condition is known as diabetic retinopathy and affects about 30 percent of people living with diabetes. It can also lead to other blinding ocular complications, such as diabetic macular edema. In this disease, the macula—the part of the eye responsible for detailed vision—swells, damaging vision and leading to blindness. Risk for these complications increases with age and duration of diabetes.
To prevent diabetes-related vision loss, both Academies recommend people with diabetes get a dilated eye exam each year. Getting these exams can help prevent 95 percent of this type of vision loss. The exams are performed by ophthalmologists—physicians that specialize in medical and surgical eye care—and optometrists. For those with Medicare, because plans vary, people with diabetes should talk with their primary care doctor to determine the best process for setting up an eye exam. Those with Medicare Advantage may have different benefits from those with only Medicare Part B, which is traditional Medicare. Those with commercial insurance would need to check their specific policy.
Comprehensive eye exams include putting dilating drops into the eyes to help the pupil expand. This allows a better view of the retina—the light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye—and makes it easier to see early signs of diabetic retinopathy. Cameras may also be used to record any disease progression. These special cameras include a microscope to get close-up images of the retina.
These eye exams allow early detection, monitoring and, if needed, treatment of diabetic eye disease. This can prevent unnecessary vision loss, enabling people with diabetes to continue to live full and productive lives. Such exams also allow checking for conditions such as glaucoma and cataracts, for which people with diabetes are at an increased risk.
“It is essential for people with diabetes to get eye exams every year,” said Rahul N. Khurana, MD, a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, a member of the CAEPS Board of Councilors, and a retina specialist. “Sometimes my patients are surprised to find that Medicare or other insurance covers these sight-saving exams, which are simply one of the best steps a person can take toward preventing vision loss.”
For those with Medicare, the program covers 80 percent of the cost of eye exams for people with diabetes and the remaining 20 percent is typically paid for by the patient. If this cost is a concern, EyeCare America may be able to help. This is a public service program of the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. It can help older Americans get a comprehensive eye exam and up to one year of care at no out-of-pocket cost. Learn more or see if you or your loved one qualifies at www.eyecareamerica.org.