It’s well known that having diabetes, especially for long periods of time, raises the risk of cardiovascular disease — including heart attack and stroke. But it hasn’t always been clear what factors make someone with diabetes more likely to have a stroke, beyond diabetes control and duration and general stroke risk factors.
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But new research points to a previously unknown factor in your risk of having a stroke: whether or not you have diabetic retinopathy, an eye disease caused by damage to small blood vessels in the retina (the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye). Researchers at the University of Utah speculated that retinopathy could be a sign that someone also has small blood vessel damage in the brain, which is a risk factor for stroke, as noted in a Healio article on their findings.
As outlined in a presentation at the International Stroke Conference 2020 in Los Angeles, the researchers looked at data from 2,828 people with diabetes who took part in a large study called the ACCORD Eye Study. Over an average study tracking period of 5.4 years, 117 of the participants had a stroke. Out of those who had a stroke, 41% had diabetic retinopathy, while only 30.5% of those who didn’t have a stroke had diabetic retinopathy — a significant difference. This association remained after controlling for age, sex, race, HbA1c (a measure of long-term blood glucose control), cholesterol levels and smoking status.
The researchers suggested that the next useful step would be an observational study of people with diabetic retinopathy, to see how and when they tend to have strokes. This information could help doctors target stroke prevention efforts more effectively.