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Keeping Your Eyes and Smile Healthy When Living with Diabetes

Posted on November 27, 2019 in Healthy Living

woman with diabetes

November is American Diabetes Month and according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA) nearly 30 million adults and children are living with diabetes in the U.S. Specifically in Iowa, the American Diabetes Association reports that 286,000 Iowans have diabetes. Let’s break that down:

  • Nearly 11 percent of adults in Iowa have diabetes and within this population, an estimated 75,000 adults have diabetes but don’t yet know.
  • 33 percent, or 810,000 Iowans are living with pre-diabetes having blood glucose levels higher than normal but not yet high enough to be considered diabetic.
  • 16,000 Iowans are estimated to be diagnosed with diabetes each year.

It’s important to know that if you are diabetic or pre-diabetic there are connections between diabetes and dental and vision health care issues. What are they? Let’s begin with vision.

Diabetes and Vision Health

There are several conditions that diabetics and their doctors should watch for including: blurry vision, cataracts, glaucoma and damage to the retina (retinopathy) with some conditions leading to blindness. In fact, diabetes is the primary cause of blindness in adults. Diabetic Retinopathy is damage to the retina of the eyes which may cause vision impairment. The correlation between the disease of diabetes and retinopathy is high blood sugar. When left unchecked, high blood sugar can damage small blood vessels that can lead to problems with the retina. Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in the U.S. In fact, Medical News Today reports that 5.4 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 40 has diabetic retinopathy with about one-third of diabetics worldwide showing signs of the disease.

According to Dr. Chad Overman, director of DeltaVision for Delta Dental of Iowa, in addition to blurred vision, symptoms can include difficulty seeing colors, floaters and ultimately loss of vision. Diabetic retinopathy (DR) can only be found by a medical or eyecare professional but caught early, is treatable. 

Glaucoma is another eye condition that can develop over time. This most commonly occurs when there is a buildup of too much pressure inside the eye affecting the optic nerve that travels between the eye and the brain. When this pressure is not treated, blindness can occur. There are treatments and the earlier the symptoms are treated, the greater chance of retaining sight.

Swelling of the lens, caused by uncontrolled blood sugar, can also lead to cataracts, a condition where the lens becomes cloudy. Research has found that diabetics are more likely to develop cataracts than those without diabetes and at an earlier age. The same study also found that cataract surgery may cause a rapid acceleration of retinopathy or lead to macular changes in diabetics as compared to non-diabetics. In other words, the severity of cataracts progresses much faster in a diabetic and is more difficult to treat successfully.

“If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, then it’s imperative that you visit an eye care practitioner at least once a year but I recommend biannual visits,” says Dr. Overman. “They can specifically look for signs of common vision issues that come with diabetes and when found early enough, can offer and oversee treatments that may postpone or even prevent blindness.”

Diabetes and Dental Health

It’s not only the eyes that are affected when diabetic but also dental health. As high or uncontrolled blood sugar can damage small blood vessels in your eyes, it can also restrict blood flow to your gums leading to issues such as gum infections like gingivitis or tooth loss. High blood sugar can also cause dry mouth or lead to, or intensify, gum disease because less saliva is formed leaving more bacteria on the teeth that can ultimately lead to cavities. (And don’t forget the link between sugar and cavities — diabetics have more sugar, or insulin in their bodies.) In some cases, diabetics have difficulty tasting food and are more prone to infections inside the mouth.

However, the American Dental Association has found that the most common dental problem found among those living with diabetes is periodontal disease affecting about 22% . The ultimate correlation between dental and mouth diseases is blood sugar. Poor blood sugar control leads to many problems including an increased susceptibility to infection including the mouth and gums. The good news? Research suggests that treating gum disease can actually help improve blood sugar, thus decreasing the progression of diabetes.

“Diabetics should tell their dentist of their conditions, even if in a pre-diabetic stage, so that we can look for early signs of dental disease,” Dr. Jeffrey Chaffin, vice president and dental director for Delta Dental of Iowa. “We’ve also found that monitoring dental health is also a way to help monitor diabetes in general. So be sure to practice good dental hygiene and call your dentist at the earliest signs of problems.” 

Dr. Chaffin says good dental hygiene includes brushing twice a day, flossing daily, using an antiseptic mouthwash and visiting your dentist at minimum twice a year. If a person is following this regimen but still has bad breath or bleeding gums, schedule an appointment with your dentist as the symptoms could be forecasting bigger problems.

If you or a loved one has diabetes or has been diagnosed with pre-diabetes, Drs. Overman and Chaffin stress the importance of visiting your ophthalmologist and dentist more often. In fact, just letting your doctor know you are experiencing diabetic symptoms could lead to an early diabetes diagnosis and help protect your short and long-term eye and dental health and lead to better overall health.