Half of the world will be nearsighted by 2050. That's the prediction of a new paper published in the journal Ophthalmology. Of those 5 billion people who'll need glasses to see distances, the study also predicts that one-fifth will also be at high risk for glaucoma, cataracts, and other conditions that cause blindness.
So how did researchers come to such dire conclusions about our collective diminishing eye health? Experts were already well aware that both myopia (nearsightedness) and high myopia (severe nearsightedness with risk of other complications) are quickly becoming more common. According to a 2010 study, rates of nearsightedness in the U.S. shot up 66 percent between the early 1970s and early 2000s. But alarmingly, these latest predictions have both eye conditions accelerating at even faster rates than previously thought.
This paper did not delve into the reasons why nearsightedness is on the rise; it simply mapped out predictions. Since there are so many potential causes of vision deterioration and loss — genetics, lifestyle, age, diseases — experts aren't able to pin the sharp uptick on any single factor. However, past research on where and among whom myopia is more common does provide a few clues.
For instance, evidence shows that people who do "near work" — on a computer all day or reading for long stretches of time — have greater odds of myopia. Studies have also found nearsightedness is more common among well-educated people and is more prevalent in wealthier regions of the globe such as North America and East Asia. If you put these pieces together, it seems likely that our ever-increasing screen time could be contributing to the increase in myopia.
Here's another factor to consider: Americans spend a ton of time indoors. The problem isn't just that when we're inside we're likely using a computer or watching TV — we also may be missing out on key vision protection. "Being outdoors may offer a protective effect against nearsightedness," says Dr. K. David Epley, clinical spokesman of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "One theory is that sunlight causes dopamine to be released, and that keeps eye growth in check. Or it's possible that the wavelength of outdoor light itself affects how the eye grows, which in turn delays or slows down nearsightedness."
Either way, the reality is many of us do spend our days scanning spreadsheets and analyzing documents, and that's not going to change. So what can you do to protect your eyes all around and have the best shot at keeping your vision sharp? "Try not to continuously glue yourself to a screen — definitely take breaks," says Epley. "Follow the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This won't necessarily allow you to see better, but it should help cut down on dryness and eye fatigue."
Your diet may also play an indirect role in protecting your eyes. "There's no evidence that eating broccoli, kale, or carrots will give you 20/20 vision," says Epley. "However, those foods do have nutrients that can protect your eyes from conditions that can result in blindness. So in that way, eating a healthy diet will serve to keep your eyes healthy in the end."
Epley also suggests loading up on omega-3 fatty acids, especially if you have dry eyes from using computers or other devices or reading for long stretches of time. He says the best sources are salmon and other oily, cold-water fish, along with walnuts and flaxseeds. "Taking omega-3 supplements can also help, but the better choice is to ensure you eat a healthy diet," Epley adds.
You also want to keep up on eye exams. "Everyone should be seen for a comprehensive eye exam by age 40, whether or not you are nearsighted or have any symptoms," says Epley. "Some eye diseases, like glaucoma, can cause vision loss without symptoms." If you're under 40 but have diabetes or another systemic disease that increases the risk of eye issues, make an appointment with an eye doc, says Epley. An ophthalmologist can give your eyes a thorough look and assess how often you should come back.