A Myopia Epidemic in the U.S.

Health officials lament the troubling trend of children spending too much time indoors staring at screens – TV, computers, tablets and cell phones.

We know that a sedentary lifestyle contributes to the childhood obesity epidemic plaguing the U.S.

What you might not know is that this lifestyle may contribute to another epidemic – the rise in myopia, commonly known as nearsightedness.

Recent studies have documented a worldwide epidemic of rapidly worsening myopia.

In the U.S. in the 1970s, for example, 25% of the population between the ages of 25 and 54 was myopic. At the turn-of-the-century, that number rose to about 42%.

During the same time span in Singapore, the percentage of young people with myopia spiked from 28% to more than 80%.

Although nearsightedness is easily corrected with prescription glasses, extreme myopia in adults can lead to a higher risk of macular degeneration and glaucoma, one of the leading causes of blindness in the U.S.

As researchers charted this spike in myopia, they discovered that children who live in the country and children who spend more time outdoors were less likely to become myopic.

How can that be? It has to do with the two pathways that send information from the eyes to the brain, according to Dr. Rick Graebe, a behavioral optometrist in Versailles.

The center pathway determines what things are while the peripheral pathway determines where things are.

Too much close-up work, like the kind required to stare at small screens and the kind required for schoolwork, develops focal vision at the expense for peripheral vision.

So the eyes grow accustomed to close-up work, and need help (glasses) for distance.

To counteract this imbalance, Dr. Graebe recommends parents have their children do eye stretches (a kind of yoga for the eyes), take 20-20 breaks (look 20 feet away for 20 seconds after 20 minutes of close-up work) and most importantly, get outside and play.

In addition, Dr. Graebe’s office offers near-point testing, which is not part of a routine eye-chart exam, to catch myopia. Children can benefit from reading lenses to reduce stress and the chance of myopia.

“When you realize that for eons our vision was focused on hunting animals, all this close-up work causes stress on our eyes,” Dr. Graebe said. “But there are things we can do to reduce that stress and keep the visual system working well.”