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Great Grandma warns others not to take their eyesight for granted this Diabetes Week

There are now 100,000 people in Northern Ireland living with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

Image: Nan Murray with her youngest great grandchild

This shocking number includes the estimated 12,000 who have not yet been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. All of whom are at increased risk of diabetic eye disease as well as glaucoma and cataracts.

Within 20 years of being diagnosed, nearly all people with type 1 diabetes and almost two-thirds of people with type 2 diabetes will have developed some form of diabetic retinopathy, a condition which affects different parts of the eye and can result in vision loss.

Nan’s Story

Nan Murray, 82, was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in her early 50s and wants to help make others diagnosed with the condition more aware of the effect uncontrolled blood sugars could have on their sight.

Now registered severely sight impaired due to progressive Diabetic Retinopathy, Nan says, “If I knew what I now know, how diabetes could affect my sight so much, I would’ve been much more careful.”

“It didn’t affect my sight at first. I started off just watching what I was eating. Gradually though, I lost that fear and started eating more of what I shouldn’t. My blood sugars were high and erratic. The doctor put me on tablets for a while to help stabilise them, but my eyesight started deteriorating.

When my eyesight started deteriorating

“I noticed it in my right eye first when I was in work in my last role in my mid-60s. My vision went blurry looking at the screen. It turned out that my retina at the back of my eye has been damaged. I've experienced a lot of bleeds which have really blurred my vision and caused it to be patchy. Sometimes they’ve cleared on their own but I’ve had quite a few surgeries on my eyes now, including laser and a vitrectomy, which did help and delay any further sight loss, for a while.

“Thankfully I was able to work right up to, and a little beyond retirement but my sight has got a fair bit worse since those days.

“It’s now that I’m really starting to regret not taking better care of my diabetes to try to have avoided the difficulties that have come with the degradation of my sight. I was always an avid reader and knitter, with books constantly piled up ready to work my way through. It wasn’t often I didn’t come back from the shops without another one or two books!

Getting help and support from RNIB

“Thankfully with a little advice and training from RNIB’s Technology for Life team I use my Kindle and tablet now to keep reading. I would be lost without it, especially during the lockdowns! I still have one level of magnification left before I might have to start thinking about audiobooks, and I’m really just not there yet.

“Just a few weeks ago I gave my daughter all my knitting supplies, including dozens of knitting needles with half-knitted rows that I’d dropped stitches in and couldn’t see to pick back up. I would’ve knitted lots to send to Africa, and for friends’ children and family. I would love to still be able to.

“It is frustrating. Even trying to find things is so difficult now. Like the right bit of paperwork, what I want to wear, or the TV remote. I love my soaps!

“But I’m thankful for the sight I do still have. That I am still able to read with the Kindle and use my magnifier for letters and the TV times. That I’m still able to see pictures and the faces of my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, though a bit blurry. It was so hard during lockdown when we had to rely on phone and video calls or doorstep visits when it’s even harder to see people. I love my visits, they really make my day.

Nan’s words of wisdom

“To anyone who has recently been diagnosed with diabetes, or is at risk, I would say: ‘Be very careful with your eating'.

“Don’t do like me, I ate sweets the whole time but if I had to do it again I wouldn’t. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.

“If you have developed sight loss like me, maybe recently, I’d say: ‘You just have to keep trying.’ Keep trying different things to help. Get advice from RNIB and others. You don’t know what’s available in your own area or by just lifting the phone. And I’ll try to take my own advice too!”

Preventing sight loss with diabetes

It’s possible that diabetes won’t cause any changes to your vision. However, diabetes can affect your eyes in a number of ways.

  • The most effective thing you can do to prevent sight loss due to diabetic retinopathy is to go to your retinal screening appointments and eye examinations.
  • Retinal screening has begun again, with safety measures in place. If you haven’t heard from your local diabetic retinal screening service and you are overdue for an appointment you can check with your GP or diabetic nurse what the procedure is for reinstating your appointment.
  • If you or your family are from a South Asian or African-Caribbean background, you’re two to four times more likely to get type 2 diabetes. The factors behind this aren’t fully understood but are thought to involve insulin problems, genes, diet and lifestyle.

For further information on looking after your eye health with diabetes, visit our diabetes page.

To speak to someone about any queries or concerns, and find out about support available, call the RNIB Helpline today on 0303 123 9999.

Notes to Editor

How Diabetes can affect your eyes

It’s possible that your diabetes won’t cause any changes to your vision. However, diabetes can affect your eyes in a number of ways:

  • The changes in blood sugar levels caused by diabetes can affect the lens inside your eye, especially when your diabetes isn’t controlled. These changes can result in your vision blurring, which can change throughout the day and from day to day, depending on your blood sugar levels.
  • Diabetes can cause the lens in your eye to become cloudy. This condition is known as a cataract. If you have diabetes, you’re more likely to develop a cataract, and diabetes can cause cataracts to develop at an earlier age.
  • Some people with diabetes may develop glaucoma, an eye condition that can cause damage to the optic nerve, often due to raised pressure inside the eye.
  • Over time, diabetes can affect the network of blood vessels supplying the retina at the back of the eye, affecting how the retina works. This is known as diabetic retinopathy. There are different types of diabetic retinopathy and how it can affect vision will depend on the severity of the changes to the blood vessels.
  • Diabetes can also be associated with or increase the risk of other eye conditions including retinal vessel occlusion, corneal eye conditions or eye muscle problems. See our diabetes related eye conditions page for more information.