Blindness risk skyrocketing in shocking numbers, nature could prevent it

Big glasses
CC BY 2.0 Nicki Varkevisser/flickr

1 billion people are at risk of vision loss by 2050, but researchers say it could be curbed by just getting outside more.

In urban areas of East Asia, myopia (nearsightedness) affects 80 to 90 percent of kids upon graduating from school. In the United States, myopia has risen from 25 to 42 percent in adults in the last 30 years.

And now researchers at the Brien Holden Vision Institute predict that up to 1 billion people could be at risk of blindness by 2050 if the emerging myopia epidemic is ignored.

With this knowledge in hand, the Brien Holden Vision Institute is making a plea to everyone from governments and health agencies, to civil society, parents and schools, “to protect the eye health of every child and adult and meet this major public health challenge of our time," says Professor Kovin Naidoo, Acting CEO, Brien Holden Vision Institute.

"Firstly, the public must be made aware that this threat exists. Secondly, we need researchers and public health practitioners to develop effective solutions. Thirdly, eye care professionals need to be better equipped to manage patients at risk," added Naidoo.

"The major concern is with the vast number of people who are likely to progress to high levels of myopia, which brings with it a significantly increased risk of potentially blinding conditions and vision impairment," says Naidoo. "Myopia is not curable or reversible, but there are promising interventions using optical and behavioural approaches that can help slow the progression and prevent people becoming highly myopic."

Previous research has revealed that myopia is not just a matter of genes. And the consensus is that the act of spending too much time inside is causing the problem. Specifically, a leading theory is that it’s a matter of sunlight. Regardless of what kids are doing – whether sports, or playing, and even those who continue to do “close work” (like reading) outside – what seems to be key is the eye's exposure to bright light. (You can read more about the "why" here, Why has nearsightedness more than doubled in 50 years?)

So what can we do?

"Parents should encourage their children to spend time outdoors for at least two hours each day. [Other research has recommended three hours.] They should also ensure children don't spend too much time on electronic devices, such as tablets, mobile phones, electronic games, television and other activities which requires them to focus close up for long periods,” says Naidoo. As well, “teachers and parents should ensure that children are screened for vision problems at regular intervals and can also be vigilant in detecting and acting on vision problems among children."

So there you have it. We can become a species of limited vision and nature deficit (fast forward to dystopian images of mole people with giant glasses afraid to venture outdoors) or we can send our kids outside to play. I'm thinking some sunlight sounds pretty good right about now!

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