The Edmond Sun

February 1, 2013

Myopic outbreak threatens children’s eyesight worldwide

Mike Hinkle
Special to The Sun

EDMOND — Suppose you read this headline in tomorrow’s paper: Children Around the World Losing Eyesight, Parents, Grandparents and Schools to Blame. Suppose further you are stunned as you read the story because you discover it’s true. You are dismayed to learn that scientific studies in the United States, Europe and Asia consistently find that young people are becoming increasingly myopic in staggering numbers for the last few years. Your heart breaks when you discover that schools, parents and grandparents are playing an enormous role in the failing eyesight of our loved ones. And sadly, for many, the damage is already done and can’t be reversed.

Amazingly, this sensational and disturbing headline might accurately reflect a dangerous reality. Recent studies have, in fact, documented a worldwide epidemic of rapidly worsening myopia. Researchers have been keeping an eye on the rate of nearsightedness in America since the early 1970s. Back then, 25 percent of the population between the ages of 25 and 54 was myopic. At the turn-of-the-century, that number rose to about 42 percent.

In Singapore, 28 percent of the young people were found to be myopic in the early ’70s. Today that number exceeds 80 percent. A recent study of the visual acuity of young men in Seoul, South Korea, and college students in Shanghai produced this shocking statistic: Ninety-five percent of them are nearsighted

Similar findings indicate that eyesight also is worsening in certain European countries. For years, scientists believed that nearsightedness was a problem of heredity. But heredity, alone, cannot account for these disturbing and unexpected increases. So why are so many people around the world gradually losing their eyesight? The answer may shock and dismay.

In the Feb. 9 issue of Science News, an article by Nathan Seppa appears with the following headline: “Urban eyes; too much time spent indoors may be behind a surge in nearsightedness.” In this article, Seppa sets out a compelling summary of the problem and suggests that our children are simply not spending enough time playing outside. He backs up his theory with a catalog of persuasive evidence.

In 2007, a research team from Ohio State University discovered that statistically, children who spend more time outdoors doing physical activity were less likely to become myopic. A similar study by the University of Sydney in conjunction with the Australian National University discovered that physical activity indoors didn’t seem to offer the same protection.

A close look at the demographic distribution of advancing myopia finds it is not so prevalent in rural areas. A large study currently taking place in China monitors the eyesight of children who are assigned an extra hour of outdoor activity each day in school. Though the study is not complete, early results indicate that being outdoors seems to be beneficial to students’ eyesight.

This growing epidemic of myopia is taking place at the very moment in history when young people are spending unprecedented amounts of time peering at smart phones and computers when they’re not otherwise engrossed in video games. In Asia, where the uptick in nearsightedness seems to be gathering more speed than elsewhere, researchers propose that the intense pressure to succeed in scholastic endeavors is forcing students to spend unprecedented amounts of time intently eyeing textbook pages and microscopes.

According to Seang-Mei Saw, a physician and epidemiologist at the national University of Singapore, “There will be an epidemic of pathological myopia and associated blindness in the next few decades in Asia. … Reading, writing and computer work contributes to myopia … We found that children who regularly spend time on computers (are) at a higher risk of myopia.”

The relationship between outdoor activity and healthy eyesight is being documented but not understood. Andy Fischer, a retinal neurobiologist at Ohio State University makes this observation: “Throughout evolution, humans spent almost all their time outdoors. New behavior patterns — living in an industrialized society and spending more time in classrooms — place unnatural demands on the eyes that may not mesh well with humans’ ancuebt programming.”

Maybe the human eye needs a kind of nourishment that only natural light can provide. Maybe increasing rates of myopia are related to vitamin D deficits. Some victims of myopia have, indeed, been found to have 20 percent lower vitamin D levels.

This is a wake-up call to all of us. However we may feel about the mind-numbing effects of television, computers and video games, we might be guilty of child abuse if we don’t get the kids off the machines and get them outdoors to play. Let’s be more conscientious about luring our children out into the sunlight. It’s good for their souls and important for their eyesight. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.



MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.