Something Is Causing Our Eyeballs to Elongate
Human eyesight is degrading right before our eyes, and the problem is growing
Human eyeballs are growing longer, from front to back, at an alarming rate, resulting in a spike in the prevalence of myopia, or nearsightedness. Among Americans, rates of myopia have increased from 25% of people in 1971 to more than 40% today, according to the National Eye Institute. In the major cities of developed Asian countries, the rate exceeds 80% among students as they graduate from high school.
But researchers and eye doctors, many of whom view myopia as a growing epidemic, are largely mystified over the mechanisms behind it. Evidence points to two likely and related culprits during the critical years (infancy to late teens) when eyeballs grow and develop their ultimate shape:
- Increased time focused on smartphones, tablets, and other up-close tasks in school and during heavy homework loads.
- Lack of exposure to bright daylight, which is thought to offer a protective effect against myopia.
The severity of myopia is also increasing. An extreme form of nearsightedness, called high myopia, nearly doubled from 2.2% of the global population in 2000 to 4% in 2020. It’s projected to reach 10% by 2050, according to the World Health Organization. High myopia increases the risk later in life of glaucoma, which damages the optic nerve and is a leading cause of blindness in the elderly, as well as macular degeneration, which cracks and destroys the macula at the center of the retina, ruining straight-ahead vision.
“We may only know the full impact of myopia as the population ages,” Lisa Ostrin, a University of Houston optometrist who studies myopia in children, tells Elemental.
Barbara Caffery, president of the American Academy of Optometry, worries that not enough is being done to determine the problem’s causes and solutions. “We are witnessing an epidemic, one that will bring tragedy, morbidity, depression,” Caffery wrote last year in an open letter to colleagues. “Surely we will not be known as the myopic ones, the ones that missed the obvious.”