In the later analysis, 49% of the participants — with an average age of just 25 — had developed diabetic retinopathy. While 39% had mild or very mild cases of the eye condition, about 4% had the most severe form. Compared to mildly affected patients, those with more extreme progression had higher blood sugar and blood pressure, as well as more health problems.
The participants represented several racial and ethnic groups, including Hispanic, black and Native American people who are at higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes, making the findings generalizable to the American public, notes Gubitosi-Klug.
Treat young people early, prevent complications
According to the American Diabetes Association, an estimated 210,000 young people in the US under the age of 20 have diabetes. These patients should strive to keep blood sugar levels tightly controlled and work closely with their doctors to do this, advises Gubitosi-Klug.
“Even if their vision is fine now, diabetes likes to affect your tissues sooner, so see your doctor and see an eye doctor,” she says. “And don’t skip those eye exams.”
In addition to research findings related to eye health, doctors need to understand that children “not only develop diabetes at a young age, but also develop the complications of diabetes,” continues Gubitosi-Klug.
“I think there’s been hesitation in aggressively treating them with drugs for diabetes or high blood pressure because they’re young. But waiting puts them on the path to developing these complications.”
Even people without diabetes should be aware of this problem, she says.
“We need to work with families to overcome barriers to ensure healthy food is available to all, and that schools and children can focus together on healthy eating and activities to prevent these children from developing diabetes.”
And routine eye exams should also include the extra step of dilated retinal testing, Gubitosi-Klug says. With about 1 in 10 Americans with diabetes and another 88 million with prediabetes, such tests can reveal early signs of diabetic retinopathy or other dangerous vision changes.
“There’s good news. If we catch early lesions and improve diabetes control, we know from other studies that some eye findings can improve,” she says. “So there is always a benefit to trying to improve your diabetes management.”