Eye doctors at the University of California, Berkeley, are opening a new clinic to help combat an alarming rise in myopia, or nearsightedness, which they attribute partly to the overuse of handheld electronics.
“There are a number of factors involved in the increase of myopia, but I have no doubt that changes in lifestyle over the past several decades that include more time spent indoors and the early use of handheld computers play a big role,” said Dr. Maria Liu, head of the new Myopia Control Clinic at UC Berkeley’s School of Optometry. “The problem with smartphones and iPads is that kids often hold them closer to their eyes than they would a book, and they can become totally absorbed for hours at a time. The working distance for handheld devices is much closer than it is for laptops and TV.”
Liu noted that young children are particularly vulnerable because their eyes are still developing. She added that, in particular, nearsighted children under 10 could benefit most from early intervention.
Admittedly, the overuse of handheld electronics by young children is not the only culprit for the rise in myopia. It may be that myopia is simply a byproduct of modern, urban life, said the researchers, who noted that nearsightedness rates are relatively low in agricultural regions and nations. High rates of myopia among children in East Asian countries have been attributed to long hours spent reading indoors.
A study funded by the National Eye Institute, or NEI, found that the prevalence of myopia increased 66 percent for those aged 12 to 54 years in the United States between 1971-1972 and 1999-2004.
Notably, NEI data shows that severe myopia was twice as prevalent among younger adults as for the elderly. For those aged 20 to 39, 7.4 percent had severe myopia compared with 3.1 percent for those 60 and older.
Give your eyes a break
To reduce the risk of developing — or worsening — myopia, clinicians suggest:
Take frequent breaks from near-work activities. For every hour spent in front of a computer screen, work in a 10-minute break that includes looking off into the distance.
Get outside. Whether the benefits come from light exposure or increased time spent focusing at a distance, studies show that time spent outside is highly protective against myopia.
The goal of UC Berkeley’s new Myopia Control Clinic, which will operate Thursdays and Sundays, is to slow down the progression of myopia while it is still in its early phase of development. In addition to providing conventional glasses to correct myopia, doctors will be offering treatments for controlling the condition’s progression, ranging from special contact lenses to prescription eye drops.
“The early onset of myopia can have effects beyond corrective lenses,” said Liu. “The earlier the myopia starts, the longer the disorder has to develop into something more severe. It’s relatively rare, but in pathological myopia, the excessive elongation of the eyeball dramatically increases the risk for retinal detachment, growth of abnormal blood vessels and other complications, which can lead to irreversible vision loss.”
Patients can get more information or schedule appointments at the myopia clinic by calling (510) 642-2020, or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The interventions offered at the UC Berkeley clinic are well-established, but new treatments are continually being developed. Dr. Christine Wildsoet, UC Berkeley professor of optometry and vision science, recently helped organize a meeting focused on finding ways to stem the epidemic of myopia in industrialized countries.
The meeting, The Seventh Annual Berkeley Conference on Translational Research, brought together researchers from around the world. Among the topics discussed were the results of early trials of new drugs to slow myopia progression and the interaction of environment and genetic predisposition.
“There is still a myth circulating that myopia is something we can’t do anything about, and that is not true,” said Wildsoet.