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Unravelling the myopia "epidemic"

Levels of myopia are reaching near epidemic levels because children are spending so little time outdoors, researchers believe. In China and South Korea, 80% to 90% of young adults are now shortsighted, up from less than 20% half a century ago. In Europe and the US, the figure is closer to 50%, but that is still twice what it was in the 1950s. This has prompted researchers to re-examine what causes myopia: there is mounting evidence to suggest that it is not close work and reading that's to blame, as previously thought, but lack of daylight.

That reading was the culprit seemed likely because myopia rates began to rise in the West in the 19th century, when univeral schooling was introduced. What wasn't factored into the research was that reading and studying are done indoors, away from daylight, eye surgeon Dr David Allamby told the Daily Telegraph. "So the link between studying and myopia might be a red herring."

The theory is that rates have soared in East Asia owing to the intense pressure there on children to succeed academically: 15-year-olds in Shanghai are typically set three times more homework (15 hours a week) than those in the UK. The slower, but still significant, increase in the rate of myopia in Europe and the US in the past century could be explained by children spending far more time playing indoors (or watching TV) than they did in the 1950s. The new theory is being taken very seriously in China, where some children now have lessons in glass boxes or outside. Early results from these trials suggest they're having a positive impact.


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