The Myopia Pandemic: Is Short-Sightedness Becoming the New Normal?
Myopia – more commonly known as near- or short-sightedness – is a common refractive error that affects distance vision. This means that, while you may be more than happy performing up-close tasks such as reading and working at your computer, objects that are further away appear blurry. In fact, myopia is the most common visual impairment, and evidence shows that it is on the rise.
Since the 1950s, when researchers first started recording instances of myopia, the prevalence of the condition has increased at a tremendous rate almost uniformly around the world. The number of young people affected doubled in a single generation – and the rate of prevalence is continuing to accelerate.
In a 2019 study, it was estimated that almost a third (32%) of the world’s population now has myopia, with rates expected to soar even further. At the current rate of acceleration, estimates indicate that almost 60% of us will have myopia by 2050. But what is the cause of this accelerated prevalence? And is there a solution to short-sightedness?
What is Myopia (Short-Sightedness)?
Myopia is a refractive error caused by an irregularly shaped cornea. As a result, light is refracted into the eye inefficiently, in a way that it doesn’t quite reach the retina at the back of the eye. In the best cases, this can cause blurry vision when looking at objects that are far away. In people with more severe myopia, however, it may also be associated with headaches and eye strain, and even accelerate the development of conditions such as glaucoma, cataracts, and retinal detachment.
The Rise of Myopia
To understand the rising rate of myopia, let’s try something: Look in any direction as far as you can. What do you see?
If you’re lucky, you may be able to turn your head and spot some trees or a hill in the distance. But the likelihood is, in most if not every direction, your gaze is suddenly thwarted by some sort of wall or man-made structure.
The Indoor Generation
The thing is today – unlike almost any other time in human history – the vast majority of people spend the vast majority of their lives indoors. Today, over half of the human population worldwide (that’s 4.4 billion individuals) lives in cities; and this trend is expected to continue, with the urban population expected to more than double by 2050.
Thanks to this mass urbanisation, many of us live within a stone’s throw of anything we could possibly need – or at least of the transport that will get us there. We now spend most of our time indoors – whether that be in vehicles, offices, supermarkets, or our own homes. In most circumstances, being outside is simply not necessary anymore.
Of course, we might enjoy taking a long walk or hike in the countryside every so often, but we no longer have to focus over long distances to look out for predators or survey our journey ahead (we already have that planned with the help of our phones and laptops!). What’s more, thanks to the rise of the non-stop work culture and constant haze of light and air pollution, our eyes are getting less and less opportunity to gaze over the horizon.
Many experts believe that this reduction in our physical worlds may have something to do with the significant rise in degrading distance vision.
But is there any proof?
The highest levels of short-sightedness have been identified in urban East-Asian cities. For example, in the 1950s, it was estimated that between 10 and 20 per cent of people in China were short-sighted. Today, the prevalence of myopia among teenagers and young people alone is thought to be as high as 90%. What’s more, studies consistently reveal that rates of myopia are lower in rural communities compared with urban settings.
It used to be believed that the development of myopia was mainly determined by our genes. But these findings (among others) indicate that that theory may be dead in the water. So, rather than focusing on our physiology, researchers are increasingly asking what it is about our modern lives that may be causing the so-called myopia pandemic.
The answer may be right in front of our faces – literally. Today, most of us spend more and more of our lives staring at screens, whether it’s at our computers for work or at our phones or televisions for leisure time. These up-close tasks cause the eyes to favour objects in the near field of vision – specially in children whose eyes are still developing. So, in essence, what we see and look at changes how the eye develops.
Are our modern indoor lifestyles with all their closed spaces, smartphones, and up-close tasks to blame for the myopia pandemic? And if so, do we need to give it up to save our vision, or, as other research is suggesting, do we need to just make some radical but common sense changes?
What’s the Solution?
It has now been established that spending more time indoors is associated with a greater risk of developing myopia. But it may be more useful to focus on the other side of this coin: Spending more time in the less-developed outdoors may lead to a lower risk of developing this increasingly common refractive error.
This idea is supported by a number of studies, including a chick study in which myopia was induced with specially-made goggles. The researchers found that it was possible to induce the development of myopia by reducing exposure to light, showing that light levels akin to being outside slowed the development of short-sightedness in chicks by a huge 60%.
The science to back this up is pretty solid. Light stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the retina, which, in turn, blocks myopia’s characteristic elongation of the eye during its development. In short, light is key to growing and maintaining a pair of healthy, clear eyes.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that taking up hiking as an adult will magically reverse your myopia. Luckily, there are other solutions. For hundreds of years, we have been using visual aids to correct refractive errors including short-sightedness. While largely effective, though, these solutions undoubtedly come with their downsides. Over the last few decades, however, a better solution has become increasingly available.
Laser Eye Surgery for Myopia
Laser Eye Surgery first successfully treated myopia almost 40 years ago. Since then, the procedure has advanced significantly, making it one of the safest elective procedures in the world. What’s more, advancements in technology now mean that more patients than ever – even those with extremely high prescriptions – may be eligible for treatment. Millions of people around the world have thrown away their glasses and contact lenses with the help of Laser Eye Surgery, and you can too.