The Myopia Epidemic

By Stephen Cohen, O.D. —

Nearsightedness (difficulty seeing things far away), aka myopia, is growing at an alarming pace and is estimated to impact one in two Americans by the middle of this century. In parts of Asia, it affects 80–90 percent. Although genetics plays a role (two nearsighted parents are more likely to have a nearsighted child), other factors are becoming more prevalent.

We have not gone through an evolutionary phase, but over the past few hundred years we have gone from hunters and farmers to industrialists, to now, “computerists.” More and more time is spent engaged in activities that are no more that 1–3 feet from our faces. We have two eyes to help us with depth perception (3-D vision) and with peripheral vision to be aware of things to our side. With the exception of driving and sports, we pay less and less attention to our peripheral vision.

The typical manner in which this has been addressed is for children to be fit with glasses. At their next annual exam, if their prescription increased, glasses were updated. Statistically, things start to level off at about age 17–18, but with the amount of time being spent on devices, we are seeing myopia progress even at later ages. Recent studies, however, have shown that this is not just a matter of how thick the glasses wind up, it can also be a predictor for more serious vision and eye health issues. It has been found that for people with stronger prescriptions, cataracts can develop earlier, and the risk of glaucoma and degeneration of the back of the eye increases substantially.

For parents (and interested others, such as grandparents, pediatricians, school nurses, teachers, etc.), there are things that can be done to prevent or slow down this progression. Two-and-a-half hours has been found to be a critical time period. For young children, the chances of becoming nearsighted can be decreased by having a child spent at least 2.5 hours per day outdoors. Additionally, it was found that for a child who spends 2.5 hours or more on a digital device, the degree of nearsightedness can increase dramatically. Having young children engage in outdoor activities will help to stop nearsightedness from developing and reducing the amount of time on digital devices can help to slow down or stop the progression of nearsightedness, where the prescription continues to increase over time.

Studies have also shown that there are other ways to slow down this progression. Bifocal glasses or contact lenses (even for children), certain types of contact lenses that reshape the eyes, as well as certain eye drops used at bedtime, can slow down the progression by 30–60 percent. The key here is that slowing down the progression means it is less likely for the child to reach that level of nearsightedness that increases the risk of cataracts, glaucoma and retinal changes.

For many years, eye care practitioners sought ways to slow down the insidious increase in nearsightedness. There are now techniques available to not only improve a child’s vision now, but to help protect his or her eyes for the future!

Photo by emden09 on / CC BY-NC-SA

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