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The Myopia Epidemic

8 min read
child trying on glasses for myopia

The chances are that when you were a kid, some well-meaning adult probably convinced you that eating carrots would help you to see in the dark.

While you might not hear that fictitious fact too often anymore, – cos’ let’s face it, carrots won’t give you night googles any more than eating blueberries will turn you blue, it turns out that our modern lifestyle is affecting our vision – and not for the better.

That’s because myopia rates are on the rise – particularly in children.

Myopia, if you’ve never heard of it before, is the medical term for what is more commonly referred to as ‘nearsightedness’. Basically, it is a common eye condition that makes distance vision blurry.  What that means is people with myopia can typically see well enough to read a book or computer screen but struggle to see objects farther away. While myopia affects kids as well as adults, in the past the childhood rates weren’t too much of a cause for concern.

But with our ever-changing modern lifestyle: more and more of us spending less time outdoors and more time inside – myopia is on the rise, and optometrists and eye specialists want to let families know the risks. 

Because the good news is: there are precautions that you can take to protect your kid’s eyes from unnecessary damage.

While the cause of myopia can be down to genetics – which basically means if mum or dad has it, there is a greater chance that a kid will too, our lifestyle choices play a role in the increase in cases, especially in kids.

Dr. Debbie Jones is a clinical professor of optometry at the University of Waterloo and a scientist at the Centre for Ocular Research & Education. Her team found that children who spend less time outside are much more likely to have myopia or nearsightedness, which often gets worse with age. “Children spending more time inside on tablets and cell phones and other near activities and less time outside is certainly one of the components of why rates of myopia in kids are on the rise.” 

In the study conducted by Dr. Jones and her team of experts, they found that myopia is a global epidemic with prevalence rates in Canadian children increasing at an alarming rate. Of the 166 children in the study, nearly 20 percent were nearsighted. What was more worrying was how the numbers increased with age: six percent of the children (age six to eight) were nearsighted, compared to 28.9 percent of children ages 11 to 13 – a five-fold increase.

The good news is that in many cases, myopia is preventable. Dr. Jones said that her team found that children who spent even an extra hour outside per week, were about 14 times less likely to be myopic than children who didn’t.  “We know that outside time has a protective effect. So if your child is not myopic then more time spent outside is recommended – at least ninety minutes a day. And if your child is myopic, then talk to your eye care practitioner about ways to slow down the progression.”

child getting eyes tested for myopia

So how do you know if your child has myopia?

Just like with anything medical, consult a specialist. Dr. Jones said that often parents overlook going to the optometrists for a check-up because they assume their kid’s eyes are fine.

 “I often have parents who say to me, ‘my kid’s eyes are fine’ and my response is ‘well you know that one eye is working.’ Because without a thorough and regular eye examination from an optometrist, you don’t really know how their eyes are working. And children are not very good at letting you know if they can’t see clearly, they may not have a comparison, so kids might not actually know that they have an eye problem. There really is no substitute for a regular eye examination.”

Dr. Jones said that parents need to view a trip to the optometrist in just the same way as a trip to the dentists. “You wouldn’t look in your child’s mouth and expect to see a problem with their teeth – it should be the same for vision. You can’t look at your child’s eyes and decide for yourself if they have a problem, you should take them to a professional.”

You might be surprised to learn that the recommendation for the first eye exam is at six months of age; which is really to check that a baby’s eyes are developing normally. 

Eye specialists then recommend a second exam around the age of about three years old, then annually thereafter. Dr. Jones said, “We recommend an eye exam once a year from school age onwards, just to make sure that you find out if things are changing.”

While coverage for optometry exams varies from province to province, here in B.C. if you are under the age of 19, your MSP will fund or subsidize the cost of one routine eye exam a year. Additionally, MSP may cover all routine eye exams for children under the age of 19 in families who receive income or disability assistance.

It’s important to get kids eyes tested because myopia in young children will get worse as they get older because their eyes are continuing to grow. And the scary thing is if nearsightedness is left untreated, it can increase the risk of blindness. The more nearsighted your child is, the greater these risks become and these risks increase exponentially as myopia progresses.

The majority of myopia progression typically occurs between the ages of 6-17, as this is a key growth time for children and their eyes. 

Although Dr. Jones says there’s no substitute for a routine eye exam, she also said there are signs that kids may be suffering from nearsightedness. She said parents may notice their children squinting at things, they may move closer to things (like the TV) to get a better view, they may hold things closer, they may struggle at school. Sometimes children can even fall behind with reading or schoolwork. A perfect example of myopia affecting a kid’s life is when they have difficulty reading a teacher’s writing on the whiteboard. Sometimes people with undiagnosed myopia have headaches and eyestrain from struggling to clearly see things in the distance. So, there are lots of things that you can look out for.

There are plenty of resources online available, including a new website that has just been launched called fightmyopia.ca with some good information about myopia and it can also help people find a good eye care practitioner if they don’t have one already.

Finally, Dr. Jones said that while the news is alarming, we should remember that with environmental cases of myopia we are in a position to change the rising statistics. 

“We don’t know for sure how much, but we do know that our modern lifestyle is having quite a significant impact on the effects on people’s eyesight. It’s a contributing factor, and we are in a position to try and reverse the trend by limiting that amount of screen time, indoor time and getting children outside more and having regular eye examinations and looking for ways to slow down that progression if we find our child is myopic.”

Ultimately it boils down to that message we hear time and time again: get kids off screens and outdoors. And if you want to feed them carrot sticks as well, then go for it.

Facts about Myopia 

  • Myopia is near-sightedness which means people have trouble seeing things far away.
  • Myopia can only be diagnosed by a trained eye specialist, but symptoms could include: blurry vision, sitting too close to a TV, or holding a device too close. 
  • People with myopia may also complain of headaches.
  • Myopia can be down to genetics, but the environment and lifestyle play a big factor.
  • Specialists recommend that kids spend time outdoors in daylight and less time indoor on screens.
  • Did you know that almost one-third of all cases of Myopia go undiagnosed or untreated; and if not properly treated by an eye care professional, can lead to long-term vision complications such as retinal degeneration and detachment?

Find an Optometrist near you

Lynn Valley Optometry
North Van, 604/987-9191
Dr. Shajani specializes in working with children with visual dysfunctions and learning-related vision problems. With our Vision Therapists, he has helped children reach their potential for over 12 years.

Maple Ridge Optometry
Maple Ridge, 604/463-4469
Our optometrists are committed to your child’s eye health and success. We can ensure your child has one of the most important tools they need for learning: healthy, clear vision.

West Vancouver: 604/922-0413
Squamish: 604/892-5055
Significant myopia is more than a cosmetic issue. Highly nearsighted people have a much higher incidence of several ocular diseases. By far, the most effective way of stopping and reversing myopia is orthokeratology. The doctors in our clinic have a combined 40 years experience in Ortho-K.

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