By 2050, an increase in myopia, or nearsightedness, may reach epidemic proportions, potentially blinding up to one billion people worldwide. After examining studies of trends surrounding myopia globally, researchers at the Brien Holden Vision Institute are encouraging us to act now to prevent widespread vision loss from becoming a reality.

The researchers have also found that half the world’s population, or an estimated five billion people, will likely be myopic by 2050, with one-fifth falling into the high myopic category, meaning they are at a greater risk of blindness. Because of this, the researchers strongly suggest we implement behavioral interventions and preventive optical treatments to stop this condition from growing. Right now, an estimated two billion people have been diagnosed with myopia.

In their paper, Professor Kovin Naidoo, acting CEO of Brien Holden Vision Institute, said that it is essential for governments, health care providers, and schools to work together to help protect vision for both children and adults.

“Firstly, the public must be made aware that this threat exists,” Naidoo said in a press release. “Secondly, we need researchers and public health practitioners to develop effective solutions. Thirdly, eye care professionals need to be better equipped to manage patients at risk.”

The researchers also found that myopia has become particularly common in East Asia, where 80 to 90 percent of school leavers in the urban areas of Singapore, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea have some degree of vision loss. But the problem is also acutely affecting Western nations, with countries like the United States seeing a leap in myopia in the past 30 years, amounting to 25 percent of people in the early 1970s, but jumping to 42 percent in 2004.

Naidoo said that the biggest concern is that too many people are at risk of developing high levels of myopia, which often leads to blindness. But luckily, there are still things we can do about it. “Myopia is not curable or reversible, but there are promising interventions using optical and behavioral approaches that can help slow the progression and prevent people from becoming highly myopic,” he said.

The Institute believes that if we can reduce the progression of myopia by 50 percent, almost 90 percent of nearsighted individuals will not have to face potentially going blind.

But what exactly can we do to help? Naidoo said there are many preventive measures that can be taken to reduce numbers of myopia. “Parents should encourage their children to spend time outdoors for at least two hours each day,” he said. “They should also ensure children don’t spend too much time on electronic devices, such as tablets, mobile phones, electronic games, television, and other activities that requires them to focus up close for long periods.”

We spend an average of nine hours a day in front of a screen, found a 2013 report by the Vision Council, and the effects are irreversible. When we spend long periods of time in front of a screen, we can strain our vision and dry out our eyes. Eventually, the longer we stair at a screen, the greater our chances are of becoming nearsighted.

Naidoo added that screening for vision problems regularly is also key to helping the problem early. Health care professionals can also prescribe specialized contact lenses or glasses, which Naidoo said showed great results in preventing myopia from progressing. “The Institute is working with the private sector to develop a myopia management program to ensure there is a comprehensive management of patients including health promotion and clinical interventions,” he said.

Along with that, the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness has declared the theme of World Sight Day, happening Oct. 8, to be "Eye care for all," in hopes of raising awareness of this growing issue.

Source: Vitale S, Ferris RD, et al. Increased prevalence of myopia in the United States between 1971-1972 and 1999-2004. Archives of Ophthamology. 2009.

Dolgin, E. The Myopia Boom. Nature. 2015.