According to the journal Nature, the incidence of nearsightedness (or myopia) is reaching epidemic proportions in young adults and teens in Southeast Asia and across the globe. In China, the prevalence of the condition has grown from between 10 percent and 20 percent sixty years ago to 90 percent today.
At the same time, the incidence of myopia has doubled for young adults in the U.S. and Europe and now affects approximately one half of the population. The Nature story also suggests that less time outdoors may be the real culprit, as opposed to previous research, which pointed to excessive amounts of near work as the likely cause.
When Key-Whitman Eye Center’s optometrist Sadaf Razi ElHaffar, O.D., was in school 15 years ago, she says, “We studied the theory that extended amounts of near work was the most likely source of what creates nearsightedness. East Asians were known to be one of the most myopic populations, supposedly because students spent a lot more time doing homework and went to school six days a week.”
According to Dr. Razi, “That theory is now being challenged. As Nature reports, researchers coincidentally found that the level of light exposure actually had more influence on the development of myopia than did the level of near work. However, the research discussed in Nature mainly focuses on axial length (the overall front to back length of the eyeball), when in fact, nearsightedness may also be influenced by how steeply curved the cornea or lens is.”
Lack of exposure to light and near work aren’t they only factors that may contribute to myopia, genetics likely also play a role. “While the exact causes of myopia remain unknown, there is more evidence that there is an interaction of heredity and DNA and environmental factors that plays a role. Your genes, excessive near work, and lack of exposure to outside light may all contribute to the development of myopia,” Dr. Razi says.
Looking back to her own childhood, Dr. Razi believes “changes in societal norms could also factor into the myopia epidemic. As a mother of two young children, I see our society leaning more toward entertaining kids safely indoors, where we can keep an eye on them. That means kids are spending more time playing with video games or an app on the iPad than they are climbing trees or riding their bikes around the neighborhood. When I was growing up, we were encouraged to play outside, which is not as common these days.”
Are today’s teens and young adults going to experience a higher risk for myopia than Dr. Razi’s generation? The research detailed in the Nature piece seems to support this suggestion, and the doctor agrees.
“As eye health providers we promote the same good habits primary care physicians do for maintaining good systemic health. We have always encouraged patients to eat a healthy diet, get adequate exercise, avoid smoking and subscribe to other healthy lifestyle habits. Now, we may also add the recommendation of increasing outdoor activity and adequate exposure to natural and bright light,” Dr. Razi explains.
Nearsightedness is inevitable for a significant portion of the population, and today, coke bottle eyeglasses and contact lenses aren’t the only options. According to Dr. Razi, “refractive surgery is one of the most attractive options for young adults who don’t want to deal with glasses and contacts anymore. It can really be quite liberating for patients to not have to depend on glasses and contacts.”
Refractive surgery, includes LASIK and PRK (Photorefractive Keratectomy) and also ICL (implantable collamer lens). “ ICL can be the best refractive surgery option for people who are not eligible for LASIK or PRK. It’s an option we often recommend at Key Whitman for patients who are highly myopic,” Dr. Razi advises.
When her patients say they are anxious to pursue eye surgery, Dr. Razi can relate. She says, “I had LASIK surgery 10 years ago, and when I see LASIK evaluation patients who are nervous and scared about the procedure, I can honestly tell them that I felt that way too. I will also explain how happy I am that I had the surgery and how safe, quick and painless LASIK eye surgery is today. That insight can be very comforting to my patients.”
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If you’re concerned about your or your children’s risk for nearsightedness, contact your eye care professional. “I can’t stress enough the importance of seeing your eye doctor for routine eye health exams. Not only can he or she treat myopia, but your eye health provider can also diagnose, treat and monitor a range of other eye diseases and conditions that you wouldn’t know you had otherwise,” Dr. Razi advises.
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