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An epidemic of Myopia (Shortsightedness) – What’s going on? What can we do about it?

Over the last 10-20 years there has been a remarkable increase in the incidence of Myopia (Shortsightedness) in many parts of the world. Why is this occurring? And what can we do about it.

Myopia occurs when the focus of the eye does not match up with its axial length (depth) so a blurred or unfocused image is projected onto our retina. The eye is too long – often only by a few millimetres! This results in poor distance vision and can cause the sufferer to have problems reading road signs, reading writing on a whiteboard in class or seeing the words on a TV or movie screen.

So, what’s the big deal? You get some glasses or contact lenses or maybe have corrective laser surgery to re-shape the cornea and the myopia is managed, right? Not necessarily. Depending on the amount of myopia, the sufferer is increasingly susceptible to a variety of eye diseases and complications such as:

  • Glaucoma
  • Retinal detachment
  • Myopic macular degeneration
  • earlier appearance of Cataracts

Currently, approximately one third of Australians are myopic when they leave school, with about 4% having high myopia. This rate has doubled since the 1970s and is projected to reach 50% by 2050. In Asia, the statistics are even more alarming – in parts of Asia myopia occurs in 95% of the population with 20% having high myopia!

You may well be asking yourself why is there a sudden increase in myopia?

Let’s shed some light on what’s going on.

The popular theory for a long time has been that too much near work – reading, writing, computer work and more recently the massive increase in the use of hand-held devices – was to blame. But the most recent research has concluded that while these factors definitely have some impact, the primary reason is a lack of exposure to natural light. In many Asian countries there is little space for outdoor play and an Australian study of children in Western Australia and Norfolk Island clearly showed children who spent more time outdoors were less myopic. These results were backed up by a separate study done in Sydney in which the same results were found.

How do you know if your child is myopic or at risk of becoming myopic?

Some children will squint when looking at distant objects, older children will complain that they can’t see as well as their peers or siblings. A visit to your local optometrist can tell you definitively. Genetics plays a role as well so if you are myopic your children are at greater risk.

Myopia Prevention and Treatment

  • To minimise the risk of myopia the latest research suggests children should spend about two-three hours a day outside.
  • Regarding near work / screens / devices it is advisable to follow the 20/20/20 protocol: Look away from the screen every 20 minutes, look into the distance for 20 seconds and then blink 20 times.
  • Ensure good lighting inside especially where near visual tasks are performed.

If you or your children are found to have myopia there are a range of treatment options to minimise the degree to which you develop myopia – these include

  • eye drops (atropine therapy)
  • special contact lenses (orthokeratology / multifocals) and
  • specific spectacle lenses.

It is wise to investigate these options with your optometrist to try to avoid the myopia progressing to minimise the risk of complications.

So, while myopia is certainly reaching epidemic proportions in our modern society there are simple and effective ways to minimise the risk and to manage the condition.

By Dr. Ian Clemens – Optometrist and Director at Kosmac & Clemens Optometrists