July 11, 2014 at 11:05 AM ET
Turns out there’s something to that image of the four-eyed nerd: New research suggests that higher levels of education — and more time squinting at that computer screen and textbook — really could make you need glasses.
The vision problem under investigation is myopia, or nearsightedness, which usually makes its first appearance in school-age children as they noticeably squint at the blackboard. It’s a common condition that has become even more prevalent across the globe. In the U.S., myopia affects more than 40 percent of the population, and some Asian countries report rates as high as 80 percent.
This increased prevalence suggests environmental issues — rather than genetic factors alone — could play a significant role in myopia development. Environmental factors that have been linked to myopia include “near work,” such as reading and computer use, and living in an urban environment, among others.
In the study published online in Ophthalmology, the journal of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, researchers analyzed the association between myopia development and education among nearly 5,000 Germans ages 35 to 74, excluding individuals with cataracts and those who had undergone refractive surgery, one of the treatments for nearsightedness.
The data is striking: less than one-quarter of individuals with no high school education or other training were nearsighted, while more than half of university graduates developed the condition. The researchers also found that in addition to education levels completed, people who spent more years in school wound up more vision impaired, with nearsightedness worsening for each year of school.
The researchers did look at the effect of 45 genetic markers associated with myopia, and found only a weak connection to the degrees of nearsightedness compared to the level of education.
There may be something to be said for giving kids’ eyes a break. Other research has shown that being outdoors and exposed to daylight is associated with less nearsightedness among children and young adults.
Since students do appear to be at a higher risk of myopia, it’s not a bad idea to encourage them to spend more time outside, explains the study’s lead author Dr. Alireza Mirshahi of the University Medical Center in Mainz, Germany.
Right now, there isn’t enough evidence to say that spending more time outdoors will lessen the risk, said Dr. Douglas Rhee, chair of the department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. But it does merit study – and hey, they should get away from those screens anyway. But don’t put down the books just yet.
“As a dad, as a member of society, I wouldn’t ever discourage people from pursuing an education because they might become myopic,” Dr. Rhee says. “But I also would tell someone to spend some time outdoors. It does offer a lot of health benefits.” And in the future, it may even stop someone from calling you four eyes.