Nearly 11 million Canadians suffer from diabetes — yet many overlook a crucial part of the disease.

Diabetic retinopathy is a serious condition that affects 500,000 people with diabetes in Canada. It involves damage to the retinal blood vessels that can cause bleeding or fluid leakage, which can result in impaired vision and even blindness. In fact, diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness among working-age adults. This corrosion of blood vessels throughout the body is a common symptom of diabetes in general, but the eyes, kidney, and heart are typically the most affected areas.

Dr. Phil Hooper, MD, FRCSC, Chair, Council on Advocacy, for the Canadian Ophthalmological Society, says that vision health is a key part of overall diabetes management. “Diabetic retinopathy can be treated and reversed if caught in time,” he says. “But the problem is that the condition often goes unnoticed until vision loss occurs.” That’s why Canadians living with any type of diabetes should prioritize regular, comprehensive eye exams.

“Regular screenings can reduce chances of blindness by 95 percent in patients with diabetes,” says Dr. Hooper. Eye exams are covered by the government for those living with diabetes, but as many Canadians aren’t aware of the coverage, they forego their check-ups. “There’s a lack of knowledge amongst Canadians that needs to be addressed,” he says.

If you’re living with diabetes, annual eye examinations are important to detect signs of diabetic retinopathy before they threaten vision. Speak to your family doctor to schedule an eye exam or visit an optometrist at least once a year.