University of Iowa Health Care

Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences

Diabetic Retinopathy:

From One Medical Student to Another

Jesse Vislisel and Thomas Oetting, MS, MD


Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is a vascular disease of the retina which affects patients with diabetes mellitus. It is the number one cause of blindness in people between the ages of 20-64 in the United States. It is, therefore, a worthwhile topic for all medical students to review. Diabetes mellitus is extremely common, so it is not surprising that DR affects 3.4 percent of the population (4.1 million individuals). Of the millions of people with DR, nearly one-fourth have vision-threatening disease (AAO 2008).

The likelihood of developing diabetic retinopathy is related to the duration of the disease. Type 2 diabetes has an insidious onset and can go unnoticed for years. As a result, patients may already have DR at the time of diagnosis. Type 1 diabetics, on the other hand, are diagnosed early in the course of their disease, and they typically do not develop retinopathy until years after the diagnosis is made. The risk of developing retinopathy increases after puberty. Twenty years after the diagnosis of diabetes, 80% of type 2 diabetics and nearly all type 1 diabetics show some signs of retinopathy (Klein 1984a, Klein 1984b).

While these numbers are eye-opening, diabetics can decrease their risk of retinopathy and slow the progression of the disease after it has begun with tight glucose control (DCCTRG 1993). Glucose control also has the added benefit of decreasing risk for other end-organ complications of diabetes, so it is important that diabetic patients are educated on the topic. Time since diagnosis and extent of hyperglycemia are the most significant risk factors for the DR, but other risk factors for development and progression include hypertension, dyslipidemia, smoking, nephropathy, and pregnancy (AAO 2008).


last updated: 09-01-2010

Vislisel J, Oetting T.
Diabetic Retinopathy: from one medical student to another. Sept. 1, 2010; Available from:

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