Epidemic of Nearsightedness Has Startling Cause

myopia, nature-deficit disorder, can't see forest for the trees, children's myopia,

We don’t mourn the loss of what we don’t see.

In fourth grade I had no idea that the equations I copied from the board were incorrect, I only knew that for the first time my math papers were handed back with poor marks. And my grades kept getting worse. Although I wrote neatly and rechecked my work the teacher scrawled “careless mistakes” on my papers. I’d decided I was a mathematical dunce by the time my parents realized I needed glasses.

It was a revelation the first time I put on those glasses. I could see individual leaves on trees! I could see the faces of people passing by! I thought what I’d seen before, blurry images that resolved close up, was what everyone saw.

Myopia has risen to epidemic levels. In the U.S. young adults are much more likely to be nearsighted than people in their grandparent’s generation. In 1996, sixty percent of 23 to 34-year-olds were nearsighted compared to twenty percent of those over 65. Some Asian countries are seeing an even more alarming increase, up to 80 percent of young adults.

Reading too long, watching TV too close, even going without sunglasses have been blamed for causing poor eyesight. But the answer is much more interesting and has resounding significance for the way we raise our children.

The startling cause uncovered by researchers in three separate studies in the U.S., Australia and Singapore?

It has to do with the amount of time a child spends outdoors.

Yes, genetics still plays a part. Children born to nearsighted parents are more likely to need corrective lenses.

But researchers noticed an intriguing outlier. Children who devoted more hours per week to sports or outdoor play were less likely to develop myopia. Perhaps, it was speculated, they spent less time on close activities like reading. But further studies didn’t make that connection.

Perhaps, it was speculated, that sports and other activities made them more physically fit, somehow benefitting their eyes. But indoor sports were found to have no correlation with better eyesight, only those played outdoors. In fact, even completely inactive time outdoors was helpful in reducing the incidence of myopia.

Look at these numbers. A study of six to seven year olds (only of Chinese ethnicity to simplify comparisons) living in Singapore and Australia found marked differences based on outdoor exposure. Children in Singapore spent an average of 3 weekly hours outdoors, thirty percent developed myopia. Australian youngsters spent 14 hours outside each week, only three percent developed myopia.

No one is sure exactly what factors lead to better eyesight when children spend time outside. It may be related to the greater intensity of light or the natural spectrum of light.  Perhaps it has something to do with nutrient absorption related to light, as in vitamin D metabolism.

Or it may relate to peripheral vision. Without the limitations of walls and windows our vision can range across open spaces. This corresponds to findings that urban children, whose vision is constrained by crowds and buildings, suffer a greater incidence of myopia than rural children.

Whatever the cause, today’s children spend more time indoors than their parent’s generation. Actually, about 90 percent of their young lives are spent shut away from the natural light and wider view of the outdoor world.

They can’t miss what they don’t see.

myopia, nearsightedness, nature deficit disorder, kids indoors, benefits of outdoor play, sports for kids, improve eyesight,

About Laura Grace Weldon

Laura Grace Weldon is a writer and editor, perhaps due to an English professor's scathing denunciation of her writing as "curious verbiage." She's the author of "Free Range Learning," a handbook of natural learning and "Tending," a poetry collection. (lauragraceweldon.com) She's working on her next book, "Subversive Cooking" (subversivecooking.com). She lives on Bit of Earth Farm where she is a barely useful farm wench. Although she has deadlines to meet she often wanders from the computer to preach hope, snort with laughter, cook subversively, talk to chickens and cows, discuss life’s deeper meaning with her surprisingly tolerant offspring, sing to bees, hide in books, walk dogs, concoct tinctures, watch foreign films, and make messy art.
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19 Responses to Epidemic of Nearsightedness Has Startling Cause

  1. Ruth Radney says:

    Isn’t that fascinating! There definitely has been a huge drop in the number of children who play outdoors. It amazes me how few do that! Interestingly, I am discovering that my eyesight is improving, and I seldom wear my contact lenses these days. I’m not outdoors as much as I used to be, nor as much as I would like to be. Now I wonder if I increase time spent outdoors, if my sight improvement will accelerate. Time to research!

  2. debra says:

    Raymond and Dorothy Moore made a correlation between too early reading and visual problems in their classic book, Better Late Than Early.

  3. Kris Turner says:

    It is an amazing study, Laura. We recently moved from one side of town to another. The side we moved from was an area of white collar, middle to upper middle class. But, you NEVER saw kids playing outside (the reason we moved from the country to that neighborhood was so our kids could play with other kids in the neighborhood – but they rarely did!).

    Our kids are grown, so we downsized to a very nice, middle class, blue collar neighborhood. Kids are ALWAYS playing outside (we have lots of woods around us which make great imaginary forts, caves and offices!), riding bikes, playing games – adults and kids alike walk nightly. It’s so wonderful to experience this “community” in this small neighborhood. I don’t know if the difference is in the level of income or not. I do know that in our old neighborhood, kids stayed inside ALL the time because that’s where they had their video games, movies and TVs in their bedrooms. Here, I see parents leading the example for their kids in spending time together outdoors so that the kids will want to be outdoors exploring and playing. Whatever the reason, it’s wonderful to see kids having fun outside – and hopefully, according to these studies, they will have far better eyesight, as well!

    Have a blessed week!

    Kris, Wadsworth, OH

    • Laura Weldon says:

      That’s an interesting observation Kris. I wonder if there is a socioeconomic component.

      At the start of summer this year we were driving about an hour and a half away to visit friends on the 4th of July weekend. We set off a little after noon, driving from our house in the country, through the west side suburbs, then Cleveland and back out through the east side suburbs. We started to notice that there we NO kids outside and then paid close attention. We saw not a single child playing in a yard or park. It was a perfect day for running in the sprinkler, riding a bike, playing catch, anything ouitdoors. Something major has changed in one generation. My mother regularly said, “Get your nose out of that book and go play outside.”

      Our yard has always been the one with kids (and adults) outside in neighborhoods that seem more and more deserted. During the school year most parents in our area drive their kids to the end of the driveway to wait for the bus, safely within the confines of one vehicle until the next one arrives, and repeat that process at the end of the day. And we live in the country!

  4. Kimerly says:

    How curious that your newest post is on vision, and I’ve just finished reading: “Take Off Your Glasses and See: A Mind/Body Approach to Expanding Your Eyesight and Insight” by Jacob Liberman, O.D., Ph.D. The book is amazing, and I highly recommend it, not only for improving physical vision but also intuitive vision. C.W. Leadbeater said: “It is the commonest of mistakes to consider that the limit of our power of perception is also the limit of all there is to perceive.”
    ps..pretty sure you’re safe on excusing yourself from weeding, as a vision-improving exercise. It’s too close-up, like reading for too long.

  5. Laura Weldon says:

    I’m checking to see if the library has Liberman’s book. Sounds fascinating.
    I’m sure what our bodies express in symptoms have deeper meaning. The year my eyesight began to diminish all three of my grandparents died after slow and painful illnesses. Too much to see for a child.
    The mind-body-spirit connection is one of the reasons I think these current studies are so interesting. If our children are surrounded by walls and staring into screens it makes sense that their bodies gradually limit what can be seen. It also says to me that there’s no sense pretending we are separate from nature.

  6. Kimerly says:

    I understand the experience with your grandparents, and your eyesight. I hope you find the book. I think that you’ll love it. My eyesight concerns also began with a great stress. The exercises, in the book, are fun but not as necessary as simply breathing…deep, gentle, even, slow. Mindful breathing is underrated! Time to turn off the screen and get outside, into Nature’s healing energy.

  7. Teaberry says:

    AFA early reading… there are ranges of normal, and while some kids learn to read later on, some kids do learn to read early on. My daughter was reading fluently by 4, not by my doing… things just clicked for her, and is 7.5 now with perfect vision (I’m hoping it stays that way, and stay after her to get outside to play instead of reading so much — we also homeschool, so she has lots of free time to read)

    I can remember struggling in 3rd grade with reading, and I got my first pair of glasses when I was in 6th grade — YES! Leaves and faces, those are the two things I remember the most!

    Not sure why, but the whole “early reading” things peeves me. As if it’s not “normal” for some kids. It’s just as normal as a kid learning to read later on.

  8. Beverly Barja says:

    For years I have thought that nearsightedness had to do with not getting enough sun in our eyes.

  9. Fascinating, Laura. I thought you were gonna say it’s because of increased screen time–computers, video games, TV, etc. But I am sure that those things are what keep our children in the house. I mean, who wants to go outside to build a fort when it’s hot and sweaty when they can just lounge in the a/c and be entertained? So thankful my boys want to be outside soaking up the vitamin D from the sun, beneficial microbes from the dirt, exercising their bones and muscles, and now their eyes.

    • Interesting isn’t it? I think it has a lot to do with providing the example of parents and all sorts of adults who are outside too. Screens lure us all (I say, typing at a screen).

  10. roberto. says:

    Ever noticed how few fishermen and farmers need glasses ? this research is not new. the root is in the fact that outdoors ( like sea, mountains, lakes, farming, etc ..) our eyes have more chances to be focusing at “infinity” ( in the distance ) way more often than indoors, where simply there is not enough distance to have to focus on “infinity” ( just ask a photographer if you so wish, but trust me..) . In short: outdoors-men focus more on infinity than “close by” and so there is way less strain on the eyes . Just try. Go at the beach, sit down, and look at the horizon for a while. and see / feel how your eyes are doing. That’s all there is to it.

  11. Ange says:

    As a child, staring at age 10, I built model airplanes, a close scrutiny endeavor if there ever is one. By 13, I was obliged to my first pair of near-sighted glasses, which grew thicker over the next 5 years. We lived in a second-story flat over our grocery store, so the outdoors were less inviting; I had my days out though they we not the norm. I believe that the stress or other factor of close focusing hour after hour usually at night, and perhaps night body conditions likely increased the size of my eyeballs. (Increased diameter for normal lenses will result in nearsightedness. All other attributes of such an eyeball are completely normal; corrected with -5 diopter lenses for me. At late age now, cataract surgery accomplished, replaced with lenses that only need -2 correction, I carry on.

  12. Gilberto says:

    Still , people need intermittent sight checks.
    This really is largely necessary you’ve got
    risk factors or maybe genealogy and family history of sight
    ailments. Children and kids should have their eyesight reviewed at
    Six months time, 3 years, and just before 1st grade.
    People today need to visit a vision dr. at least for each 2 years
    and also each and every year as you reach 60.

    • This piece is about a potential correlation between nearsightedness and lack of outdoor time. That’s it. Not medical advice and certainly not a reason to skip seeing an ophthalmologist.

      • You are likely correct. At age 10 I started a deep interest in building model airplanes; especially the very detailed delicate cutting, gluing, covering assembly of delicate balsa wood and tissue replica versions. By 13 I needed glasses for nearsightedness. I was active at it through age 17, during which the prescription went from -2 to -4; later -5 through college during studies. I was poor at sports, still can’t catch a baseball very well.

        Solution? Awareness for parents; Donning of closeup and +lens protective spectacles as a countermeasure….

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