Can Diabetes Cause Cataracts?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Diabetes is a condition in which your body doesn’t make enough insulin or doesn’t use insulin properly. Insulin is a hormone that allows sugar to enter the cells in your body. If your body has problems with insulin, glucose can accumulate in your bloodstream, resulting in high blood sugar.

Untreated high blood sugar can cause a range of health complications, including nerve damage and cardiovascular disease. But these aren’t the only complications of diabetes. It also raises the risk for cataracts.

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A cataract is cloudiness of the eye lens, which causes blurry vision. Some people describe having cataracts as like looking through a fogged up window.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 32.2 percent of adults age 45 and over living with diabetes have cataracts.

The connection between diabetes and cataracts

Blood sugar is the link between diabetes and cataracts. To understand this link, though, it’s important to understand how high blood sugar affects the body.

If left unchecked, high blood sugar slowly damages blood vessels throughout the body. This includes the tiny blood vessels in the eyes. And when diabetes affects these blood vessels, there’s the risk of cataracts and other eye conditions.

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Cataracts are the result of high sugar levels in the aqueous humor. The aqueous humor is the space between the eyeballs and the lens of the cornea. It supplies nutrients and oxygen to the lens.

When blood sugar rises, the lens swells, resulting in blurry vision.

Uncontrolled blood sugar also causes enzymes in the lens to convert glucose to a substance called sorbitol. Too much sorbitol in the lens leads to cloudy vision, too.

Cataract surgery and recovery

Cataract surgery can reverse a cataract caused by diabetes. This short outpatient procedure involves removing and replacing a damaged lens with a healthy artificial lens.

When to have surgery
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If you have a mild cataract, you might not need surgery at this time. Sometimes, adjusting the prescription of your eyeglasses can temporarily improve blurriness.

But if a cataract worsens, blurry vision can impact the quality of your life. It can become difficult to complete routine tasks like driving, reading, and climbing stairs.

The procedure

The purpose of cataract surgery is to restore clear vision. In most cases, the procedure only takes about 30 minutes to an hour.

  • It starts with your eye surgeon placing eyedrops in your eye. This dilates your pupils so that your surgeon can look inside your eye.
  • You’ll also receive local anesthesia to numb your eye and possibly a sedative to help you relax. Most people remain awake during cataract surgery.
  • To remove the cataract, your surgeon makes a small incision in your cornea and then inserts an ultrasound probe. This probe breaks up and removes the cataract. They’ll implant the artificial lens after removing the cataract and then stitch up the incision on your cornea.
What to expect after surgery

Your vision won’t improve immediately after surgery. It often takes a few days to notice increased visual clarity. After surgery, you’ll wear an eyepatch for a few days, and you’ll receive prescription eyedrops to reduce inflammation and prevent an infection.

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Cataract surgery has a high success rate. The removed cataract doesn’t grow back, though a new cataract can form. So it’s important to maintain a healthy blood sugar level.

Considerations for people with diabetes

If you have diabetes, keep in mind that your outcome after surgery depends on whether you have other eye diseases related to diabetes, like glaucoma or diabetic retinopathy. In those cases, slight blurriness might remain after cataract surgery.

Be mindful, too, you should have your blood sugar under control before undergoing cataract surgery. High blood sugar can affect wound healing, as well as increase the risk of infections and bleeding.

How to prevent a cataract if you have diabetes

If you have diabetes, you can prevent a cataract by maintaining a healthy blood sugar level. This involves monitoring your blood sugar on a regular basis and taking your diabetes medications as directed.

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If you take insulin or other medications for diabetes but your blood sugar remains high, speak with a healthcare professional. They might need to adjust your medication.

Regular exercise also helps control your blood sugar. Physical activity allows your muscles to use glucose properly. It can also prevent type 2 diabetes from progressing.

Exercises to help stabilize blood sugar include:

  • brisk walking
  • biking
  • hiking
  • dancing
  • swimming
  • competitive sports

Other steps to protect your eyes include getting comprehensive eye examinations at least once a year, maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and giving up tobacco if you use it.

Signs and symptoms of cataracts

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Although blurry or cloudy vision is a common sign of cataracts, you might experience other symptoms. These include:

  • sensitivity to light
  • changes in how you see colors
  • reduced night vision
  • halo effect around lights
  • inability to read in dimly lit rooms
  • frequent changes in eyeglass prescription

It’s important to see your doctor if you experience any of these eye changes, especially if you have diabetes. These symptoms could be a sign of cataracts or other eye diseases like glaucoma or diabetic retinopathy.

Seeing a professional

If you notice changes in your eyesight, don’t wait until your annual examination to speak with a medical professional. Schedule an appointment as soon as possible to prevent the progression of eye problems. An eye exam can help diagnose conditions that affect vision.

Keep in mind that cataract surgery has its own risks. These include:

  • infection
  • bleeding
  • swelling
  • drooping eyelid
  • retinal detachment
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Contact your doctor if you experience any unusual symptoms after surgery such as vision loss, persistent pain, or increased eye redness.

Also, if you’re unable to manage your blood sugar, a dietitian or certified diabetes care and education specialist can help you develop a healthy diabetes meal plan.

The bottom line

Cataracts are a common eye condition that can affect anyone, especially people living with diabetes. The good news is that cataract surgery can restore clear vision. However, the outcome can vary from person to person.

Many people experience improved visual clarity after surgery, but the amount of clarity depends on the overall health of your eyes and whether you have other diabetes-related eye diseases.

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