Diabetic retinopathy is a common complication of diabetes, and the leading cause of blindness in American adults. Unfortunately, it’s about to get worse: the number of Americans grappling with vision loss and blindness from diabetic retinopathy is set to dramatically increase.

Hearing warnings like these and the long list of complications from diabetes can be exhausting. With so much to keep track of, it’s easy to feel burnt out or overwhelmed.

But knowing those risks also makes you a more informed patient — someone who can take control of your diabetes care and prevent complications like diabetic retinopathy before they start.

Why is Diabetic Retinopathy Increasing?

According to the CDC, the number of Americans age 40 years and older with diabetic retinopathy will triple by 2050, from 5.5 million in 2005 to 16 million. Increases among those age 65 and older will be even higher (2.5 million to 9.9 million).

Why are public health professionals predicting such huge increases? The projected surge is primarily the result of an increase of the number of people with diabetes.

Diabetic retinopathy is caused by progressive damage to the blood vessels of the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye that is necessary for good vision. Too much sugar in your blood can damage, or even completely block, these blood vessels. As more and more vessels are blocked, blood supply to the retina is cut off and vision suffers.

Who is at Risk for Diabetic Retinopathy?

Everyone with type 1 or type 2 diabetes is at risk for diabetic neuropathy, with almost everyone who has had diabetes for more than 30 years showing some signs of the condition.

The good news, though, is that avoiding certain risk factors within your control can help you avoid increasing your risk. Besides the duration of your diabetes, other risk factors include:

  • Poor control of your blood sugar level
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Pregnancy
  • Tobacco use

The CDC says early diagnosis of diabetic retinopathy and timely treatment reduce the risk of vision loss; however, as many as 50 percent of patients are not getting their eyes examined or are diagnosed too late for treatment to be effective.

In cases of diabetes complications, knowledge is power. Knowing your risks can help you recognize risk factors, signs and symptoms, and keep you healthy in the long run.