The number of Americans who are nearsighted has nearly doubled over the past 50 years, with the condition now affecting more than 41% of the population. That’s causing concern among physicians and other health professionals.
“We used to think that nearsightedness, or myopia, in children wasn’t a big deal because it could be corrected by wearing eyeglasses or contact lenses,” said Donald Fong, MD, MPH, an ophthalmologist and researcher who is director of myopia prevention and control for Kaiser Permanente in Southern California.
“We now know that more severe myopia is a big concern because it can lead to serious problems later in life — such as retinal detachment, glaucoma, and myopic macular degeneration — that can cause permanent vision loss.”
Myopia occurs when the eye grows too long from front to back. That causes the eye to focus light in front of the retina instead of on the retina. As a result, people with myopia have a hard time seeing things that are far away.
Myopia usually begins in childhood between the ages of 6 and 12 and often continues to progress throughout the teen years, while the eyes are still growing. When myopia becomes severe, the layers of the eye become so thin that they can tear.
While some children inherit myopia from their parents, environmental factors play a more significant role in determining who will become nearsighted. The main culprit is too little outdoor time. Too much time spent on screens and other “near-work activities” may also be a cause.
One year into a global pandemic that’s keeping kids inside and on screens more than ever, health professionals are raising new concerns about increasing nearsightedness. A January 2021 study in JAMA Ophthalmology showed a surge in myopia among school children in China following 5 months of school closures due to COVID-19.
Dr. Fong anticipates a similar trend in the United States. “Kids are spending more time in virtual education, so they aren’t walking to and from school or playing outside during recess. Team sports have been canceled in many communities, and most interactions are happening via screens.”
To reduce children’s risk of developing myopia, Dr. Fong has a simple solution: Get kids outside.
“Children need to spend at least 2 hours outside every day to reduce their risk of developing myopia,” he said. Exposure to natural light when kids are outdoors has been shown to significantly decrease their risk of myopia.
An added benefit of outdoor time: Few kids can resist running and playing when the breeze hits their faces.
“It’s a win-win,” said Dr. Fong. “Not only are they less likely to become nearsighted, they’re also less likely to become overweight.”
Find tips on keeping kids active during the COVID-19 pandemic.