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Jacksonville Researcher Asks Why Rapidly Rising Number Of Kids Are Nearsighted

kid's hand on iPad
Brad Flickinger via Flickr
Noel Brennan says devices aren't clearly causing nearsightedness, but they do tempt kids to stay inside.

Children are the most vulnerable to the century’s biggest threat to eye health, says a Jacksonville-based researcher.

But there’s a simple step that can reduce that danger: Putting down digital devices and simply going outside to play.

Noel Brennan, a clinical research fellow at Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, is an expert on myopia, or nearsightedness, which he calls “the biggest threat to eye health in the 21st century.”

Johnson & Johnson Vision, headquartered in Jacksonville, is teaming with the Singapore Eye Research institute on a $26.35 million research project to take on myopia, whose rates have skyrocketed in recent decades.

The company says that nearsightedness — which leads to blurry distant vision — is most prevalent among the young in Singapore and East Asia. In some urban areas the prevalence is now as high as 80 to 97 percent among young people.

It now affects 41.6 percent of North Americans, up from 25 percent in 1971, Brennan said — and that rate is only expected to grow.

The speedy rate of increase argues against genetics being behind the growth of the problem, so researchers are trying to figure what else could cause it.

Brennan said that in Asia, myopia is much more common in urban than rural areas, and seems to be strongly tied to education — the more time studying and spent inside, the higher the rate.

A suggestion is made to him: What about the stereotype of the bespectacled bookworm?

“If it’s about education,” he said, “that stereotype is at least reasonably accurate.”

There’s no direct evidence yet that myopia can be blamed on digital devices, Brennan said. But they’re probably not helping.

“One of the things we know that can slow down, at least, the onset of myopia is having kids spend more time out of doors,” he said. “The thing is, having those interesting devices may keep kids from going outside.”

Brennan said it’s unclear why time spent outdoors helps ward off myopia: It could be the light, pupil size or the distances that the eyes are drawn to.

“We don’t know why outdoors is good, but it is good,” he said.

Brennan is a native of Melbourne, Australia, who heads up Johnson & Johnson’s myopia team.

One of the aims of the research with the Singapore group will be trying to figure out how to reduce the risk of the disease.

Myopia can be more than just an inconvenience, Brennan said. It can also lead to increased rates of developing eye diseases such as cataracts, glaucoma, retinal degeneration and retinal detachment.

Myopia, caused by a slight elongation in the eyeball, generally develops in children and adolescents. Brennan encourages parents to get their children eye exams from the age of 2 to try to spot it early.

“We’re facing a tsunami of eye disease in the coming decades,” he said. “That’s what we’re worried about.”

This article is from our partner The Florida Times-Union

Photo used under Creative Commons license.