Diabetic Retinopathy Timeline: How long does it take to develop and when does it occur?

10 Nov 2023Eye Health & General Information

Diabetic retinopathy is a serious eye disease that can lead to vision loss. As indicated by the name, it comes about as a complication of diabetes, specifically from the condition’s tendency to weaken blood vessels.

When blood vessels in the eye are weak, they’re more likely to rupture, which leads to fluid leaking into and taking up space in the retina. This can damage your eyesight over time.

Diabetic retinopathy is not rare for diabetics – over half of people with diabetes will eventually develop the condition. Hence, for anyone living with this condition, it’s important to know the answers to the following questions:

How long does diabetic retinopathy take to develop? When does diabetic retinopathy occur? We’ll answer these questions today as we give you a deeper look at this condition.

The Stages of Diabetic Retinopathy

To comprehend the development timeline of diabetic retinopathy, we have to first look at its phases.

Mild Non-Proliferative Retinopathy

This is the earliest stage. At this point, there are just tiny balloons of build-up in the retina’s blood vessels. These are also called micro-aneurysms.

Moderate Non-Proliferative Retinopathy

In the next stage of the condition, the blood vessels develop more issues. Bleeding starts to occur in the retina and there can be leakage of fluid and lipids into the extracellular space.

Severe Non-Proliferative Retinopathy

Even more blood vessels develop blockages at this phase. This causes the retina to be starved of blood. In response, the body begins to grow new blood vessels in response to this lack of blood supply.

Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy

This is the most serious stage, when the body continues creating new blood vessels in the retina. These blood vessels are unhealthy and unstable and tend to bleed easily. Furthermore, they also lead to scar formation and can result in tractional retinal detachment, which is a serious cause of vision loss.

Development Timeline: Factors at Play

How long does it take for diabetic retinopathy to develop? There is no precise answer to this, unfortunately, as it’s influenced by various factors:

Duration of Diabetes

The length of time the person has had diabetes can influence the likelihood of getting diabetic retinopathy. The longer you have had diabetes, the more likely you are to develop the latter.

The usual period is about 3 to 5 years into a diabetes diagnosis. However, the less controlled one’s diabetes is, the shorter that timeline is likely to be.

Moreover, it is worth noting that the figures we have can’t be precise because diabetic retinopathy itself often goes unnoticed in its early phases. This means that a fair number of diabetics may be getting it earlier than 3 to 5 years in, but just do not notice or get diagnosed until it has progressed to a worse stage.

Blood Sugar Control

While keeping your blood sugar in check won’t guarantee protection from diabetic retinopathy, it does appear to be associated with a lower risk of it as well as slower progression.

We have written before about some of the things you can do to improve glycemic control, so check out that previous article for more details.

Individual Variation

Genetics, overall health, and simple lifestyle differences can lead to variance across the time it takes to develop diabetic retinopathy if you are diabetic. Some can take years to go from the first stage to the next; others, mere months.

Get screened for diabetic retinopathy today

As with many other conditions, diabetic retinopathy is best dealt with as soon as possible – which means that those who have it should get diagnosed as soon as possible.

This is only possible with both vigilance and regular eye screening. If you learn that you have it early on, you can perform proactive management and avoid its progression into the worst, vision-threatening stages.

Our team of specialists can help you with that. Call us at Shinagawa Eye Centre to enquire or book an appointment for an eye screening today.