In the later analysis, 49% of participants — whose average age was just 25 — had developed diabetic retinopathy. While 39% had mild or very mild cases of the eye condition, about 4% had its most severe form. Compared with mildly affected patients, those with more extreme progression had higher blood sugar and blood pressure levels, as well as more health problems.
Participants represented diverse racial and ethnic groups, including Hispanic, Black, and Native American people considered at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, making the findings generalizable to the American public, Gubitosi-Klug notes.
Treat Youths Early, Prevent Complications
About 210,000 youths in the U.S. under age 20 are estimated to have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. These patients should strive to tightly control blood sugar levels and work closely with their doctors to do so, Gubitosi-Klug advises.
“Even if their vision is OK now, diabetes likes to take effect on your tissues earlier, so see your doctors and follow up with an ophthalmologist,” she says. “And don’t skip those eye screenings.”
Beyond the study findings related to eye health, doctors should understand that children “at a young age are not only developing diabetes, but developing the complications of diabetes,” Gubitosi-Klug continues.
“I think there’s been hesitancy to aggressively treat them with medications for diabetes or high blood pressure because they’re young. But waiting is putting them on the path to developing these complications.”
Even people without diabetes should be aware of this issue, she says.
“We need to work with families to overcome barriers to make sure healthy food is available to all, and that schools and kids can focus together on healthy eating and activity to help prevent these kids going on to have diabetes.”
And routine eye exams should also include the extra step of dilated retinal testing, Gubitosi-Klug says. With about 1 in 10 Americans diagnosed with diabetes, and another 88 million with prediabetes, such testing could 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’s always a benefit in trying to improve your diabetes management.”