A new epidemic is taking over humanity.  To combat it, schools should send students out

Few things come without any disadvantages. Rich countries have almost completely escaped infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera and malaria. Instead, the ministries of health in these countries are fighting the diseases caused by wealth. Cheap, high-calorie food has wiped out hunger from the rich world, but it does promote diabetes. Office work may be more comfortable and less dangerous than field work, but it does promote obesity and heart disease. And from this balance of advantages and disadvantages, not even education escapes, he writes The Economist.

In the last few decades, East Asia has seen a staggering increase in myopia rates. And more and more evidence suggests that the main reason behind this phenomenon is … education – more precisely, the fact that students spend much of the day in relatively dimly lit classrooms.

Almost all young Asians need glasses

Before the economic boom that began in the 1960s, myopia was a rare deficiency in East Asia, but today it is almost ubiquitous among young people. In Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei, more than 80 percent of those who finish school are nearsighted. In Seoul, more than nine out of ten young people are nearsighted. China, which began its economic rise a little later, is catching up. Data from Guangzhou in the south and Inner Mongolia in the north show myopia rates of about 80 percent among young people.

Even though East Asia is at the center of this epidemic, the West is not immune. Studies show that myopia rates are between 20 percent and 40 percent in Europe, and research in California found a rate of 59 percent among young people between the ages of 17 and 19.

Early myopia can lead to vision loss

There are, of course, worse things to do. But myopia is not really benign. Glasses and contact lenses are an expensive, lifelong hassle. In some rural areas of China, where some families cannot afford to buy glasses, and children are struggling at school. In addition, severe myopia predisposes those who have it to other eye diseases in middle age, some of which can cause irreversible loss of vision.

Governments in Asia are increasingly concerned about the public health implications of growing generations of myopia, and those in other parts of the world should start worrying as well, the article in The Economist points out.

Regular exposure to daylight is vital in order to properly control the development of vision in children. Too little light leads to myopia. Researchers believe that this explains why rates are so high in Asia, where there is a strong emphasis on education, and young people spend many hours in school and often do private meditations in the afternoon and evening.

Solution: spend more time outdoors

Special eye drops, as well as smart glasses and contact lenses could be solutions that slow down the progression of myopia once it has started. But prevention is better than mitigation, and science suggests a cheap and simple measure.

A number of encouraging studies, many of them conducted in Taiwan, show that if more time is spent outdoors, especially for primary school children, the number of those who develop myopia decreases. An island-wide policy that does just that seems to have already begun to reverse decades of rising myopia rates.

After all, countries like Finland and Sweden are doing well in the global rankings of education with a less intensive approach to education. Longer breaks at the playground could also break into other issues in the rich world, such as childhood obesity. The bottom line is simple: governments with a vision should send their children outdoors, he concludes The Economist.

Editor: Luana Pavaluca

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