Diabetes Education Can Help Lower Blood Sugars & Reduce the Risk of Diabetic Retinopathy

Logo: Diabetes Management: It Takes a Team --National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of updated posts on living with diabetes and blindness or low vision, written by Audrey Demmitt, RN, BSN, a Diabetes Nurse Educator and APH  VisionAware Peer Advisor. As a primer to initiate Diabetes Awareness Month, Audrey introduced this topic with an overview of diabetes from head to toe. Now, to initiate the series, Audrey discusses specific ways that diabetes education can help lower your blood sugars and reduce the risk of diabetic retinopathy. Her mantra is, “Education + Motivation + Support = Improved Blood Sugars, Fewer Complications and Increased Quality of Life.” 

Diabetes: A Major 21st Century Public Health Issue 

According to Healthy People 2020, diabetes has been identified as a major public health issue that affects an estimated 29.1 million people in the United States. It can lower life expectancy by up to 15 years and is the leading cause of kidney failure, lower limb amputations, and adult-onset blindness. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that diabetes is the leading cause of new cases of blindness in the United States among adults. Diabetes is on the rise and more people are living with blindness or low vision caused by its damaging effect on the eyes including diabetic retinopathy.

Diabetic retinopathy is a disease that causes swelling, leaking, and bleeding in the fragile blood vessels of the eye, resulting in vision loss. About one-third of all individuals with diabetes will develop it and if you are a male, or Hispanic, or Black, there is an even higher chance you will have this complication. Clinical factors that increase a person’s chances of developing diabetic retinopathy include: 

  • number of years living with diabetes 
  • chronically high blood sugar levels 
  • the use of insulin 
  • the presence of high blood pressure. 

What Can You Do to Lower Your Risk? 

The primary treatment goal for diabetes is to maintain healthy blood sugars and keep your A1c (long-term measurement of blood sugar over time) as normal as possible. In addition, it is very important to monitor and treat high blood pressure since this causes damage to small blood vessels in the eyes, kidneys, and other vital organs. 

Managing diabetes is all about balancing healthy eating with the right amount of physical activity for you and taking your medications as prescribed. This is easier said than done, as diabetes is complicated and requires constant self-care and daily vigilance. In my experience as a diabetes nurse educator, I have seen the barriers people must overcome in order to learn to manage their diabetes. Among the most common are: 

  • lack of information and training 
  • lack of access to proper medical care, classes, and services 
  • the financial burden of treatment and supplies 
  • the emotional impact of this disease including feelings of being overwhelmed, discouraged, and even depressed. 

Vision loss and neuropathy make it even more difficult to manage one’s diabetes. How does a person read information to learn about their disease? How do they find the tiny drop of blood to test their blood sugars? How can they operate their glucose monitor or draw up insulin if they can’t see? Even difficulty with cooking healthy meals can have an impact on the blood sugars of a person with diabetes. 

Managing diabetes effectively requires specialized education and training. And if you are experiencing vision loss as well, you may need additional support services and even specialized equipment, such as talking glucose monitors and blood pressure cuffs.  

Where can you turn for help and resources? 

APH VisionAware has excellent information on diabetes and vision loss. There is an entire section devoted to diabetes and diabetic retinopathy updated by diabetes educator Kim Ladd.

APH VisionAware also offers A Guide to Caring for Yourself with Diabetes and Vision Loss which offers the basics about living with diabetes and tips on how to cope with vision loss. This guide is also available in Spanish.

I have found the resources very helpful as lesson plans for people with diabetes and blindness or low vision. The topics include the Seven Self-Care Behaviors established by the Association of Diabetes Care and Education Specialists (ADCES7 Self-Care BehaviorsTM ): 

  1. Healthy Eating 
  2. Being Active 
  3. Monitoring 
  4. Taking Medications 
  5. Problem Solving 
  6. Healthy Coping 
  7. Reducing Risks 

These lessons are full of great information that can help you improve your knowledge and skills to control your diabetes. These guides are also useful for diabetes educators and vision rehabilitation providers to learn about adaptations for vision loss. 

A Formula for Success 

There is much to learn when you have diabetes, and it can be overwhelming. But it is critical to manage your disease successfully and live well with diabetes. The time is now and whether you are new to diabetes or have had it for years, I encourage you to renew your commitment to practice good self-care: 

  • Seek updated information and education from a diabetes educator, dietitian, and a vision rehabilitation therapist if you are blind or low vision. 
  • Consult the APH VisionAware Directory of Services to find these services in your area and ask your doctor about local diabetes classes, counseling, and one-on-one consultation with a nutritionist. 
  • Set goals and make an action plan. Consider what motivates you toward your goals. Is it your family and the desire for quality of life? Stay focused on your motivation for making changes. 
  • And lastly, ask for help and support from loved ones, healthcare professionals, and others who are living with diabetes. Contact the local chapter of the American Diabetes Association and ask if there are any support groups in your area. Some vision rehabilitation agencies offer support groups, including for people with diabetes and vision loss. You will learn about many resources that can support you if you reach out for help.

Remember: Education + Motivation + Support = Improved Blood Sugars, Fewer Complications and Increased Quality of Life