Despite major progress in diagnosis and treatment, diabetic
retinopathy remains the major cause of blindness in adults under 60 in the
U.S., said Thomas C. Lee, director, Retina Institute in The Vision Center at
Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, associate professor of clinical ophthalmology
at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California and
attending physician at Doheny Eye Institute.
Diabetic retinopathy affects 5.3 million adults in the U.S. and some
24,000 of them go blind each year. Nearly sixty percent of all diabetes
patients are expected to develop diabetic retinopathy within ten years of their
Diabetic retinopathy is the abnormal growth of blood vessels
on the surface of the retina and is caused by fluctuations in glucose levels.
The retina is the light-sensitive tissue, about the thickness of a postage
stamp, at the back of the eye.
If diagnosed early and treated properly, much of the damage
can be contained. Unfortunately, many diabetics suffer major vision loss
unnecessarily, noted Dr. Lee. "Patients suffering from the early stages of
diabetic retinopathy may not notice any changes in their vision. That's why an
annual eye exam for anyone diagnosed with diabetes or at risk of the disease is
With timely laser surgery and proper follow-up care, people
with diabetic retinopathy can reduce their risk of blindness by 90 percent. In
scatter laser treatment, the surgeon places 1,000-2,000 tiny laser burns in
specific areas of the retina. These shrink the abnormal blood vessels and help
secure the retina in its proper place.
Almost 21 million people in the U.S. have diabetes and about 6
million of those are undiagnosed. Every year, some 15,000 youth in the U.S. are newly
diagnosed with type 1 (juvenile) diabetes and about 3,700 are diagnosed with
type 2 diabetes. Almost 90 percent of people diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes
will develop some form of diabetic retinopathy.
Dr. Lee noted that while the rate of new cases of
diabetes is now decreasing in the white population, it continues to
dramatically increase among Hispanics. According to the U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services' National Diabetes Education Program,
Mexican-Americans, the largest Hispanic subgroup in the U.S., are twice
as likely to have diabetes as non-Hispanic whites. Given current trends, by the
year 2050, about 40 percent of Hispanic men and 50 percent of Hispanic women
born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes.