Myopia is becoming the new normal
Many of us live in cities and work from a desk, so most day-to-day activities happen within a few feet of our faces. Being able to see anything further than a car approaching in the distance is essentially unnecessary.
It’s no surprise, then, that rates of myopia have been soaring over recent years. According to a 2019 study in the Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science journal, more than 32 percent of the world’s population has myopia, otherwise known as near or shortsightedness.
The highest levels of shortsightedness are in urban Asian cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou in China. Over the past few decades, cases have increased in the U.S. and western Europe by around 15%.
On the surface, increasing rates of myopia don’t seem like much of a problem. The medical community were more or less in agreement that you could stick on a pair of glasses or put in some contact lenses and get on with your life.
Myopia is no doubt an epidemic. And like other epidemics, it’s not enough to find a temporary solution and hope that it goes away. The levels of myopia are increasing rapidly, and they will continue to do so unless something is done about it.
What happens in myopia is that the eyeball lengthens or elongates. This causes, at best, blurry vision when looking at objects that are far away. At worst, it can cause headaches, eye strain, hindered development in children, and accelerate the conditions mentioned above.
This is why it’s not only essential to have regular eye checks and assess myopia, it’s vital to do so from an early age. So let’s now look at a few of the main driving factors behind myopia, as well as a few of the potential ways to help manage it.
For a long time, it was widely believed that myopia was solely a genetic problem passed down through the generations.
Although myopia no doubt has a hereditary component and genetics play a significant role in determining someone’s vision, as can be seen in the recent spike in cases, it is clear that the environment also influences it.
For instance, doctors have long seen children starting life with a mild amount of myopia. But today, they are seeing the condition progress more quickly. There are many theories as to why this could be happening, and as we will see, one of the main and most convincing cases is our changing relationship with technology and the increase in screen time.
Anyone who looks around for a few minutes can notice that we are spending a lot more of our time today looking at screens.
According to a study by the American Optometric Association, four out of five parents say their children spend at least an hour a day in front of a computer or mobile device. The figure is likely to be much higher for many other kids and adults, especially those who use screens for study or work.
The technology we have at our fingertips today is incredible, but it is coming at a cost. In particular, the cost of spending more time involved in vision-intensive tasks while being cooped up indoors is coming at the expense of spending less time relaxing your vision and being out in vast, open outdoor spaces.
Although screens and digital devices are receiving much of the blame for the rise in myopia, the surge in cases began before smartphones or laptops became widely.
This fact is supported by other studies that show staring at devices all day is not, in fact, as bad for our eyes as we first thought. Instead, it seems that the real culprit is that we don’t go outside as much as we used to.
Increased screen use typically comes with increased time spent indoors. You can see this especially in regions of East and Southeast Asia where for many years students have spent ten hours in school a day, followed by three hours of homework.
All this up-close work means the eyes adjust to favour objects in the near field of vision—especially in children whose eyes are still developing. So, in essence, what we see and look at changes how the eye develops.
One of the theories why being outdoors is thought to protect against myopia is that there are fewer barriers such as walls that get in the way of being able to gaze out at nothing in particular towards the horizon.
Some researchers, however, say it is exposing the eye to natural light that helps the eye develop healthily and keeps the vision sharp. For example, Dr Donald Mutti, professor at the Ohio State University College of Optometry, says that even a grey, rainy day produces ten times more luxes, or “brightness units”, than an indoor room.
The theory is that these brightness units interact with specialized cells in the retina, causing them to produce more dopamine. This chemical is believed to help the development of the eye. In other words, dopamine might be the key to putting the breaks on the development of shortsightedness.
A Chinese study from a few years ago tried to test this by installing glass walls on four sides of a classroom and measuring if it had an effect on myopia. The results were inconclusive, but it was hardly a replacement for spending actual time outdoors.
The best advice is often the oldest and most overused. In this case, spending more time outdoors and getting plenty of fresh air and natural light couldn’t be more fitting.
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