Q: I heard that nearsightedness is spreading, especially among children. Is this true and why?
A: You are right, in that nearsightedness is increasing dramatically around the world. Some call this an “epidemic,” because it is becoming so prevalent so fast. To be clear, nearsightedness (or any vision problem) is not contagious, or “spreading,” like a disease. It is becoming more and more common, at an alarming rate.
For starters, today 42 percent of Americans between 12 and 54 are nearsighted, while in 1971 that number was only 25 percent. It is estimated now that by the year 2050, about 50 percent of the world’s population will be nearsighted. This is why some experts use the term “epidemic” to describe how rapidly this is affecting people.
Our concern focuses on children mostly, because most nearsightedness begins in school age years. It turns out that surveys show 70 percent of Americans do not realize that. Our fear is that because of this lack of knowledge, many children who could be diagnosed and treated are simply not have a professional eye exam until much later.
This trend, we think, is primarily due to the increasing time kids spend staring at digital devices, like tablets and game devices. Children today spend way too much time indoors instead of outside. They are using their young developing eyes to focus on pictures held within arm’s reach for long periods of time. This extended near focus stress is causing nearsightedness to increase.
Our advice to get your kids off the screens more. Get them outdoors more. Get them checked early for vision accuracy and eye health — before first grade. And get them examined by your eye doctor every year. If nearsightedness begins, talk with your eye doctor about new contact lenses the kids only sleep in overnight to slow or stop the progression. Some kids can use eyewear lenses that reduce the focusing stress for close work. Less commonly, but we are beginning to use mild eye drops to relax the focusing muscles inside our eyes. And more commonly, we can prescribe soft contacts that have a focusing power built in for kids to reduce the focusing stress.
April is National Save Your Vision month. A great time to consider how we use our eyes, and to take some simple steps to keep our sight (and that of our children) better. It’s very hard to get kids off the digital devices they love and also use at school, but try to be proactive and change how your kids are using their eyes each day. Long term benefits can be significant.
DR. THOMAS STOUT, OD, FAAO is an eye physician in private practice at Morgantown Eye Associates. Info: MorgantownEye.com.