Will Getting Your Kids Outside Save Their Eyes?
A growing body of research shows that spending more time outdoors can reduce the incidence and severity of near-sightedness in children.
When her two elementary school-age boys were toddlers, New Jersey mom Ilana Friedman followed long-held conventional wisdom on children and outdoor time: the former should get lots of the latter.
“We always went for walks and went to the park—things like that,” she told BabyZone.
But with her youngest son, now 3, Friedman has even more reason to make sure he gets out of the house and into the sunlight.
“I don’t think many of us have been as aware as we have been in the last year or two about the increasing evidence showing that outdoor light is beneficial for children and visual development,” she said.
Friedman is a pediatric ophthalmologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. The evidence she’s referring to is a growing number of studies showing that children who spend more time outside are less myopic—less near-sighted—than their indoor-dwelling peers. That’s not great news for the city kids Friedman treats at her Bronx-based hospital.
“Kids today are spending less time outdoors, particularly ones who live in urban environments,” she explained.
The myopia studies that Friedman and other eye doctors have been paying close attention to are largely based in Asia, where near-sightedness is increasing at an alarming rate. Most recently, in February 2013, a study by researchers in Taiwan showed that children ages 7 through 11 who had access to outdoor recess programs suffered less myopia than children who didn’t. The study was published online and in the journal Ophthalmology.
But it isn’t just Asian children who are susceptible to the benefits of outdoor light. In that same issue of Ophthalmology were the results of a study of near-sighted Danish children: Researchers found that seasonal changes in daylight hours correlated with myopic progression—the shorter the day, the worse a child’s myopia became.
The year before, researchers doing a meta-analysis of seven earlier studies concluded that every additional hour a child spends outside each week reduces his chances of myopia by 2 percent.
“There’s more and more of this research out there, and it all points to the fact that being indoors is just not good,” said Dr. Curtis Frank, a Boston-based optometrist who works on slowing the progression of myopia in children.
Frank says that current research also calls into question earlier theories that too much time spent in front of electronic devices is what’s leading to more myopia around the world.
“You can sit in front of your computer all you want as long as you get outside,” he said.
Doctors aren’t exactly sure what exactly is behind the relationship between outdoor time and (less) near-sightedness, but one theory is that the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in the brain in reaction to outdoor light. That release somehow mitigates the lengthening of the eye that’s associated with myopia.
Keeping near-sightedness at bay is important not just for the sake of avoiding glasses: The more severe a person’s case of myopia, the higher his risk for more serious problems, such as cataracts, retinal detachment, glaucoma and even blindness.
“If you can keep your prescription down, it’s beneficial, definitely,” Frank said.
Though near-sightedness typically isn’t diagnosed until the ages of 5 to 7, Frank said that even the youngest kids stand to benefit from time outside.
“Kids need in their developmental life more sunlight than they’re getting to prevent myopia, and that should be a lifelong thing,” he said. “I don’t think you can start too young.”
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