Eyes on the Prize
This article comes from Asian Geographic, Issue 2, 2013: Death & Decay. I’ve included the article as it appears in the magazine, as well as my original text. Once again, some great images from contributing photographer Majid Saeedi.
EYES ON THE PRIZE
For Asian Geographic Magazine
By Flash Parker
It’s one thing for a student to claim that a dog ate her homework, but another thing entirely to say that she couldn’t see the homework in the first place. Recent studies have revealed that between 80-90% of students graduating from schools in East Asia – from countries including China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan – suffer from short-sightedness, a condition otherwise known as myopia. A person with myopia is unable to focus on objects that are more than 2m away from them at any given point, a result of the eyeball elongating in an irregular manner. Most humans are born long-sighted and over time our eyeballs lengthen in order to allow us to focus better on objects both near and far; if this growth pattern is disrupted or affected by external forces, we may end up short-sighted. We’ve all had parents and teachers warn us not to spend all day in front of the television or sat with our noses buried in a book because it can impair our vision, but a lack of scientific research to back up these claims relegated them to superstition status. Besides, the commonly-held belief was that bad eyesight was correlated to bad genetics, and not our study or social habits. However, new research suggests that myopia, which can eventually lead to impaired vision and even blindness, may have roots in a number of environmental factors, and not be based solely on genetic predispositions. In fact, myopia may be directly linked to how much natural sunlight students are exposed to on a regular basis.
Independent studies conducted by researchers from the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence in Vision Science have associated an increased number of hours spent at school and studying at home and a lack of exposure to sunshine to increases in incidents of students with myopia. One study conducted on students from Singapore’s three predominant ethnic groups – Indian, Malay, and Chinese – concluded that environmental and outside influences, specifically time spent at school and time spent studying versus time spent outdoors under natural sunlight – have increased the number of reported cases of myopia by more than sixty-percent since the early 1990s. Of the students reported in this group, as many as twenty-percent have symptoms of high myopia, a condition that hinders vision of objects near and far, and can quickly lead to blindness if left untreated.
Myopia is not an unknown condition among East Asians; scientists have studied the ailment for decades, but have been unable to agree on whether myopia should be attributed to genetic factors or the severe educational demands placed upon students in major urban centers. As countries like China, South Korea and Singapore introduced aggressive new curriculums in the 1990s, myopia rates increased exponentially. Common risk factors for developing myopia, including the amount of time students spend reading books and pouring over homework at close levels, received a great deal of attention. However, Professor Ian Morgan of the Australian Research Council Centre wondered whether the amount of time students were spending indoors was impacting their eyesight. For example, high school students in South Korea regularly attend core curriculum classes from 8am until 3pm, and then attend afterschool study programs from 4pm until 10pm. As new educational initiatives increase the amount of time students spend buried in their books, the amount of time they may be exposed to natural sunlight decreases substantially. A secondary contributing factor is the increased availability and use of wireless telephones, personal computers, and tablets in Asia – rural and urban – over the last decade. People are simply finding more reasons to avoid going outdoors, thus robbing themselves of an opportunity to prevent myopia. Natural sunlight triggers the release of retinal dopamine, a chemical that inhibits the growth and reshaping of the eye. Sunlight is often more than ten times brighter than artificial light, and is the only practical stimulant of dopamine available to us. Without enough dopamine released into our system, our eyes can grow out of shape.
Despite mounting evidence to the contrary some groups remain convinced that myopia is rooted in genetics and not associated with environmental factors. Troublingly, some students and their parents have resorted to self-medicating in order to prevent the symptoms of myopia; refractive surgery has become popular in affluent East Asian nations, while the drug atropine is more commonly used in East Asia than anyplace else on earth. Some schools in rural China are now experimenting with various ophthalmic devices, including contact lenses, reading glasses and spectacles, with an eye towards slowing the progression of myopia or reversing its effects by artificial means. Scientists argue that if myopia can be prevented by increasing the amount of time students spend outside there is no need to conduct trials with ophthalmic devices; furthermore, early data suggests that when used for lengthy periods the beneficial effects of these ophthalmic devices is drastically reduced. Magnifying reading glasses, for example, force students to focus deeper than they would without the use of glasses, and once their eyes become accustomed to the effects of magnification, the strain on their eyes is significantly increased, and the risk for peripheral hyperopic errors (considered one of the main triggers of myopia) increases substantially. Researches have cautioned school administrators to refrain from experimenting and exposing students to these devices until enough scientific data has been collected, while administrators have argued that exposing students to more sunlight on a daily basis is simply not an option; current academic curriculums require a specific amount of study and homework time, which leaves little hope that students will be afforded opportunities to spend more time outdoors.
Myopia frequency among children of European decent living in Western nations has always been much lower than rates found in Asia – occurring in as few as ten-percent of students in Australia and Canada. Ethnic variances were frequently used in the past to explain away the differences, while Western study habits and time spent in the classroom were thought to be contributing factors (being much less rigorous in comparison). Yet students from Australia, Canada, the United States and other Western nations generally spend a great deal more time outdoors – recess and lunch breaks are longer (recess is non-existent in some East Asian curriculums), and children frequently walk to and from school. Furthermore, few Western students enroll at after school study programs, and thus have more opportunities to get outside. Professor Morgan’s research revealed that students in Singapore spent as little as 30 minutes a day outdoors, while Australian students were exposed to sunlight for an average of three hours per day. Morgan contends that if students from the West spent as much time studying and as little time outdoors as their East Asian counterparts, they too would be at serious risk for developing myopia, again debunking the myth of the gene as it related to short-sightedness.
Studies similar to the one conducted by Professor Morgan have concluded that students won’t necessarily become myopic if they spend a lot of time studying, and that ophthalmic device trials should be viewed as a last resort from the perspective of academic institutions or government bodies. A study by the University of Cambridge concluded that an extra hour per week spent under the sun reduced the risk for myopia by two-percent; if students spent two hours per day outside each day, they would reduce their risk potential by a whopping thirty-percent. By spending that much extra time outside, students would quell the overuse of their near vision, increase the use of their distance vision, expose themselves to much-needed ultra-violet light, and increase their blood circulation.
Millions of current and former students are now staring in the face of a lifetime of vision problems. The World Health Organization warns that a majority of people living in Asia will suffer from some form of myopia by the time they reach 50 years of age; twenty-percent of these people will be highly myopic by the age of 70. This is more than a case of old people needing reading glass – this is a serious public health issue that will eventually threaten the eye health of most people on earth. There is no cure for myopia, so it is extremely important to be aware of the signs and remain equipped to combat early-onset symptoms.
To keep your peepers peeping, look out for these signs, and consult your family doctor or an eye specialist if any symptoms persist:
– Headaches while reading/studying
– Squinting while watching television from a distance
– Frequently irritated eyes
– Excessive blinking
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