I have used the work myopic many times in past blogs to describe the views of politicians but myopia is also the definition of visual short-sightedness. I recently read an article devoted to myopia that is even more frightening than the state of mind of politicians. That article referred to the growing incidence of myopia in children throughout the world. The statistics are truly staggering.
In East Asia, before the economic booms that started in the 1960’s, short-sightedness among children was uncommon. Today, in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, more than 80% of school-leavers/graduates are short-sighted. In Seoul, South Korea, ninety per cent (90%) of young men are short-sighted. Even remote areas of China, such as Inner Mongolia and Guangzhou, report short-sightedness in the 90% range of all school-age children.
Although the epidemic of short-sightedness appears to be concentrated in East Asia, alarming statistics are also coming out of Europe and the United States. Studies in Europe suggest that short-sightedness occurs in 20-40% of school-age children, an order of magnitude above the natural state of the phenomenon. In the U.S., one study in California found a rate of 59% among 17-19 year-olds.
The obvious question is what is causing this stunning rise in short-sightedness?
The answer appears to be relatively dimly-lit classrooms. Compared, that is, to the daylight outside.
Evidence suggests that regular exposure to daylight is vital in properly controlling the growth of children’s eyes. Too little light leads to elongated, short-sighted eyes. Researchers think that is why the rates are so high in Asia where the emphasis on education is so highly rated that children spend most of their days in classrooms, and then go to after-school tutors when they get out of their formal lessons. In the winters of more northerly countries, children tend to go to school in the dark and come home in the dark and, if they spend all day in school, they never see the sun for months at a time.
Short-sightedness may not appear to be that bad a problem when compared to other child ailments, but the effect lasts for a lifetime. The cost of spectacles and contact lenses over the course of one’s life can add up to very large numbers. In addition, severe myopia can lead to other eye diseases in middle age, and even the onset of blindness.
There are also major and costly public health issues that arise from this rapid movement towards myopia.
Fortunately, there seems to be a simple solution that costs virtually nothing. Send the kids outside more often during daylight. Tests in Taiwan have shown that giving young children, particularly those in primary education, more time outside can cut the number who go on to develop myopia. If only all childhood illnesses could be treated so easily.
In addition, sending kids outside to play more also addresses another increasing woe of school children, and that’s obesity.
However, cultural habits are difficult to change, and the pressure that parents put on their kids and the schools to “succeed” will be a major obstacle to changing school curriculums, even though many educators believe that success does not necessarily equate to the number of hours spent studying.
Far-sighted governments, if that’s not an oxymoron, should send the kids outdoors.