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The Epidemic Hiding in “Near Sight”

Today, a child in the United States has nearly a coin flip’s chance of being nearsighted. Thankfully, we’re learning more about how parents can help their children and limit the spread of this vision epidemic.

Childhood nearsightedness can seem like the kind of problem patched up with little more than a basic pair of prescription eyeglasses. Glasses are part of the solution, but many parents — for varying reasons — wait too long to have their child’s vision examined and aren’t informed that nearsightedness is easily treatable.

Myopia, the medical name for nearsightedness, causes distant objects to appear blurred, while nearby objects can still be seen clearly. It happens when a slightly misshapen eyeball causes light to be focused in front of (rather than directly on) the retina, the thin layer that processes light in the back of the eye.

Unlike adults, young children often don’t realize their eyesight is blurry. They tend not to speak up, because they don’t think anything is wrong. Instead, the first signs and symptoms of undiagnosed nearsightedness are often secondary in nature: squinting, headaches, and difficulty playing sports.

In the long term, misconceptions about myopia can cost valuable time during a critical period of a child’s visual development. Without care, their nearsightedness can worsen. If nearsightedness progresses enough without correction, it can increase risk of developing conditions like cataracts, glaucoma, retinal detachment, and macular degeneration.

Most long-term risks stem from what is called high myopia — a very high level of nearsightedness. While young children can develop high myopia early in life, it’s much more likely to be the result of many years of unmanaged myopia that begin during early childhood.

On our current course, it’s believed that one in every 10 people will have high myopia by 2050. But there’s a silver lining. With proper diagnosis, possible medical treatment, and a few lifestyle changes, parents can slow or stop myopia’s progression and limit both short and long-term side effects. Increasing kids’ time in sunlight and limiting their digital screen time are two simple ways to promote healthy eye development.

Instead of being seen as a once-a-year doctor’s visit, a global movement is underway to completely transform the way we think about childhood nearsightedness. Organizations like the Global Myopia Awareness Coalition (GMAC) are working to make myopia awareness and management a mainstay in the public mindset. This is no small task, and GMAC is collaborating with governments, health care groups, and other nonprofits to see it through.

Before myopia can be addressed, it needs to be diagnosed. According to a 2019 GMAC survey of more than 4,000 parents, only 57 percent made regular eye doctor appointments. Just 27 percent had taken their child to an eye doctor in the past year.

The survey also confirmed another misconception: that kids don’t need an eye exam until they’re old enough to start school. Nearly nine in every 10 survey respondents agreed, so you can certainly be forgiven for holding that belief.

GMAC, however, advocates that children should have their first comprehensive eye exam between the ages of 6 and 12 months, giving eye doctors a head start to spotting early signs of myopia and putting a treatment plan in place. This guidance is backed by the American Optometric Association (AOA) and the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), both prominent organizations of eye doctors in the United States.

When detected early, myopia can often be managed and controlled, and mindful management can promote healthy habits in other areas of kids’ lives too. But myopia can occur anytime during childhood, and it’s never too late to take action to slow its progression. Remember, almost half of American kids today are nearsighted, so parents with myopic children are in good company.

For now, public awareness efforts will continue, teaching parents about an easily misunderstood condition and looking ahead to lifetimes filled with healthy, clear eyesight.

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