Norbert Herzog and David Niesel

You’ve probably heard of pandemics — the plague, influenza, HIV — but you might not have seen coverage of the growing myopia pandemic. Before you consider bathing in sanitizer, you should know that myopia isn’t contagious. Another word for it is nearsightedness.

Myopia is a condition in which close objects are seen clearly but distant objects are blurred due to the elongation of the eye or too much curvature of the cornea. This causes light entering the eye to focus in front of the retina rather than on it. Myopia is different from hyperopia, which is the kind of nearsightedness that comes from growing older. In fact, the myopia pandemic is primarily affecting young people.

It currently affects 90 percent of the young adults in China, although 60 years ago it was 10-20 percent. In the United States and Europe it affects about half of all young adults, double what it was 50 years ago. Seoul has the highest incidence: 96.5 percent of young people in South Korea’s capital have myopia. An estimated 2.5 billion people will experience myopia by 2020.

Vision issues can be corrected with glasses, contact lenses or surgery, but none of those fix the underlying defect. Eye elongation can stretch and thin parts of the inner eye, which can increase the risk of retinal detachment, glaucoma, cataracts and even blindness.

Genetic causes have been discounted, so this rapid change has to come from something in the environment. More than 400 years ago, Johannes Kepler, an astronomer and expert in optics, wrote that his intense studying led to nearsightedness. Today, students are not only studying a great deal but are also spending much of their time with cellphones, tablets, computers and video games, primarily indoors.

Intense periods of reading and studying were disproved as a cause of Myopia during a study in 2000. Seven years later, scientists from Ohio State University followed more than 500 eight- and nine-year-olds with healthy vision and tracked the time they spent outdoors. After five years, 20 percent had developed myopia, which correlated to the time they spent indoors. This was confirmed one year later, when scientists in Australia studied 4,000 students and also reported that the amount of time spent indoors was the important factor.

It’s probably because the retina of the eye produces and releases more dopamine, a neurotransmitter, during the day to signal the eye to switch from night to daytime vision. Indoor light disrupts this cycle, affecting eye development. Only 30 percent of Australian children who spent three or more hours outside each day had myopia. A systematic review paper aggregated previous studies and concluded that each hour of each week spent outside reduces a child’s chance of developing myopia by 2 percent.

Researchers are examining possible ways to control the development of myopia, such as altering the way contact lenses focus light, producing eye drops that block neurotransmitter release, and using artificial lights like those used to treat seasonal affective disorder, also known as winter depression. Of course, having children play or simply be outside seems the best option, and it has other health benefits too.

Professors Norbert Herzog and David Niesel are biomedical scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at