Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is a leading cause of vision-loss globally. Of an estimated 285 million people with diabetes mellitus worldwide, approximately one third have signs of DR and of these, a further one third of DR is vision-threatening DR, including diabetic macular edema (DME). The identification of established modifiable risk factors for DR such as hyperglycemia and hypertension has provided the basis for risk factor control in preventing onset and progression of DR. Additional research investigating novel risk factors has improved our understanding of multiple biological pathways involved in the pathogenesis of DR and DME, especially those involved in inflammation and oxidative stress. Variations in DR prevalence between populations have also sparked interest in genetic studies to identify loci associated with disease susceptibility. In this review, major trends in the prevalence, incidence, progression and regression of DR and DME are explored, and gaps in literature identified. Established and novel risk factors are also extensively reviewed with a focus on landmark studies and updates from the recent literature.