Are we raising a myopic generation?
WEARING spectacles has become so widespread today that it’s almost acceptable. A be-spectacled bride is not shunned, anymore than a school kid or a Bollywood hero is. This change has come about in a matter of just two decades because of the increasing myopia in our urban population. Myopia, a condition where the eye becomes elongated making it difficult to see distance objects, is now quite common, even amongst youngsters. So much so that eight year olds wearing thick glasses do not merit a second look.
Would we be so complacent if children and teenagers around us started wearing hearing aids? Or if we developed problems with our sense of touch or taste? If difficulties with our other senses would disturb us, why not difficulties with our eyesight?
It is an extraordinary thing that our eyesight starts to deteriorate even before a quarter of our life is completed. “Myopia is up from 15 per cent ten years ago to 30 per cent today in urban India,” says Dr Quresh Maskati, ophthalmologist and ex-president of the Bombay Ophthalmologists’ Association and Maharashtra Ophthalmologist Society. He points out that in some East Asian countries like Singapore, myopia has touched epidemic proportions, with majority of school children suffering from myopia. The reasons have been put down to changes in lifestyle. “Myopia is partly genetic, but it’s partly environmental,”says Dr Maskati, “excessive close work can be a causing or aggravating factor in myopia.”
When we concentrate our eyes on a book or a computer, they need to work together to combine the images from each eye into one, and to curve the lens to bring the image into clear focus. They also have to slide across the page or computer screen rapidly, moving from line to line. This strains the eye muscles. What worsens the situation is that when we are so absorbed we forget to blink and the reduced blinking reduces lubrication, which is essential for the proper functioning of the eyes. We do this to our eyes not only for hours on end but day after day for months and years. Immediate problems are dry eyes, red eyes, itchy eyes, teary eyes…even nausea, headaches and blurred vision. Then one day the dreaded number could arrive, a number, which cannot be reversed.
Those who are genetically predisposed to myopia are more vulnerable. “If both parents are myopic then there is a 75 per cent chance of the child becoming myopic. If one parent is myopic there is a 25 per cent chance,”says Dr Nishita Agarwala, consulting ophthalmologist. She believes that myopia has a genetic component but acknowledges that children with no hereditary factors also suffer from myopia.
Children are more vulnerable than adults. Today people use their eyes even in their leisure hours.They watch television, play video games or chat on the internet. In fact almost everything they do is indoors and within arm’s length.The net result is that nights are getting shorter.
“I see patients who catch just about three to four hours of sleep,”says Dr Meena Bhagali, an ophthalmologist. College students double up as call centre executives. HSC students give several competitive exams all at one go, slog at school or college and spend evenings at classes instead of playing sports.They read in moving trains, buses and cars. Using our eyes this way is a huge change from the life of our ancestors.
Human eyes were designed for a hunter-gatherer existence, with intrinsically excellent vision for depth perception and judging distances. However, this skill is not needed for our survival today. What is needed is the ability to read, write and view computer screens.This is our life.
Anyone who is studying or working should ideally take a few minutes break every 30 min. Looking away from the work, closing your eyes or simply staring into space rests the eyes. Blinking is also important. During a conversation we tend to blink about 20 times per minute but this can decrease to about seven times a minute when reading and four times per minute when staring at a television or computer screen.
Blinking not only lubricates our eyes it also breaks the continuous focus while reading or working. Even while driving for long periods, alternately focusing on the dashboard and faraway objects changes the focus and relaxes eye muscles. Doctors also advise reading in a good light as it is less strenuous for the eyes. Dim light makes focusing difficult due to the poor contrast between the words and the page.
Though all eye-doctors will advise you not to strain the eyes, not all are comfortable with the idea that close work could cause myopia.“One of the reasons for the increase in myopia amongst children could be that more children are being checked because of greater awareness,” suggests Dr Agarwala.
Human eyes are precious and incredible.They have an extraordinary ability to focus on objects close-up and at far distances.They can see in very bright sunlight and in nearly total darkness.They can see brilliant colours. So let’s give them that extra love and care by following the doctors’ dictum: rest your eyes when they require it because they are like any muscle in the body.
(Published in The Times of India, Mumbai)