Short-sightedness, or myopia, a global epidemic as children spend less time outdoors
Get your child into the outdoors if you want to help them avoid having vision issues later in life — that’s the message from researchers looking into an expected increase in the worldwide rate of short-sightedness.
The World Health Organisation has said short-sightedness, or myopia, already affects about 30 per cent of the world’s population.
That figure is expected to rise to 50 per cent by 2050 and researchers believe it will mainly be down to one thing — all the time children are spending indoors.
“The data shocked us firstly, and made us realise that this is probably one of the leading public health challenges in the future,” Professor Kovin Naidoo of the Brien Holden Vision Institute said.
“In Australia myopia will go from around four million to 22 million by 2050.
“I think the health budget, as we move closer to 2050, is going to be under a lot of strain from visual health.”
Myopia develops when the eye becomes elongated. Light entering the eye focuses in front of the retina, and objects further away become harder to see.
The real concern is for those who develop what is called high myopia.
“They are at much higher risk of having early onset glaucoma and cataract if they are a moderate myope,” Professor Kathryn Rose, head of orthoptics at University of Technology Sydney, said.
“If they are a high myope they’re at much higher risk of visual impairment and blindness.”
Think it’s caused by devices? Think again
Professor Rose worked on the Sydney Myopia Study, which assessed the vision of 4,000 school children.
“We don’t have the same rates of changes as has been noticed in East Asia, but we have pockets of children who are much more likely to be myopic,” she said.
“For instance if we go into academically selective schools, we will find that the rate of prevalence of myopia in those schools is very much higher than it is in the normal school population.”
At first it was thought the jump in non-genetic myopia must be due to children spending more time on computers, smart phones and iPads.
But many researchers now agree that it is not the devices, but a related issue. Increased myopia is most likely caused by children spending less time outside.
“An eye that’s myopic is an eye that’s growing too fast, too quickly and what we are actually thinking may be occurring is that when children spend time outdoors they are getting enough release of retinal dopamine to actually regulate the growth of their eye,” Professor Rose said.
“There have now been two trials, one in Taiwan and one in China that have actually shown that they can reduce the incidence of myopia in those populations by increasing time outdoors for children.”
So how much time outside is enough?
“There seems to be a general agreement that, say, somewhere between 10-15 hours a week outdoors is enough to prevent the development of myopia,” Professor Rose said.
‘We can be sun safe … but we also need to be outside’
Researchers at the Brien Holden Vision Institute are working on a range of treatments for children who show signs of becoming severely short-sighted.
“There are special optical corrections like spectacle lenses that can slow the progression, contact lenses that can slow the progression, and there’s low dose atropine, which is an eye drop that could help as well,” Professor Naidoo said.
Eye professionals are calling for a government-backed campaign focusing on the importance of time outside.
“I think there is a public message here that yes, we can be smart and sun safe but we also need to be outside,” Professor Rose said.