EyeCare America Provides Free Eye Exams to Help Prevent Blindness Caused by Diabetes

An estimated 26 million Americans now have diabetes, with the number expected to grow annually. One serious consequence of diabetes can be vision loss or blindness due to a condition called diabetic retinopathy. According to the 2011 National Diabetes Fact Sheet, diabetes is the leading cause of new cases of blindness among adults aged 20–74 years. In 2005-2008, 4.2 million people with diabetes aged 40 years or older had diabetic retinopathy, and of these, nearly 700,000 had advanced diabetic retinopathy that could lead to severe vision loss.

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November is Diabetic Eye Disease Awareness Month, and the American Academy of Ophthalmology along with EyeCare America, a public service program of the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, want people to know that a simple eye exam can help prevent unnecessary vision loss caused by diabetes. To that end, EyeCare America and thousands of volunteer ophthalmologists throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico are providing eye exams at no out-of-pocket cost to people age 65 and older. The organization and its volunteers are encouraging people to go to www.eyecareamerica.org to see if they are eligible for a free eye exam in their area.

Diabetic retinopathy is caused by changes in the blood vessels of the retina. In some people with diabetic retinopathy, blood vessels may swell and leak fluid, which can cause problems like macular edema. In others, abnormal new blood vessels grow on the surface of the retina.  

The only way to diagnose and treat diabetic retinopathy is through an eye exam with an ophthalmologist, an eye medical doctor. In its early stages, diabetic retinopathy usually has no warning signs. Over time, however, the vision blurs and everyday tasks become more difficult, and once lost, vision does not usually return. Left untreated the disease can lead to blindness. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that after 15 years of diabetes, approximately 2 percent of people become blind, and about 10 percent develop severe visual impairment.  

"By raising awareness for diabetic eye disease and connecting more people with the eye exams, EyeCare America and the American Academy of Ophthalmology are allowing people with diabetes to live more fulfilling lives," said Richard P. Mills, MD, ophthalmologist and chairman of EyeCare America.  

EyeCare America is designed for people who:

  • Are US citizens or legal residents,
  • Are age 65 and older,
  • Have not seen an ophthalmologist in three or more years, and
  • Do not belong to an HMO or receive eye care benefits through the VA.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that everyone who has been diagnosed with diabetes make an appointment with an ophthalmologist. The earlier that diabetic eye disease is caught the better the chances are of avoiding vision loss.

Page updated: Nov. 1, 2013

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