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Here’s why more 6-year-old kids are developing eye problems

The importance of eye health for kids heading back to school
Expert Jennifer Terin from joined Shannon Cuciz to talk about the importance of eye health for kids heading back to school.

New research suggests that the eyesight of Canadian kids’ is worsening with more children getting diagnosed with nearsightedness at as early as six years old – much sooner than in previous generations.

The prevalence of nearsightedness in kids of all age groups is steadily rising, according to a new study out of CNIB and the University of Waterloo. Almost a third of cases in young kids are undiagnosed and not corrected.

The Canadian scientists zeroed in on myopia, or nearsightedness. People with the condition can see close up but their vision is blurry when they look further away with glasses or contacts.

Traditionally, myopia sets in by age 12 or 13, but the doctors discovered kids are developing the condition by age six or seven.

“Our eyesight as a population is deteriorating and at a much younger age,” Dr. Mike Yang, a clinical scientist and the study’s lead investigator, said.

“[These kids] are just starting school, and the worry here is that if they start with myopia earlier, they have a longer period of time to develop higher amounts of myopia. This increases risk of glaucoma, macular and retinal problems,” he told Global News.

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Myopia typically worsens until age 21 when changes to eye shape stop. Doctors are seeing an identical trend around the world, too – there are more cases of myopia across the board, and its onset is much earlier, Yang said.

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Dr. Keith Gordon, vice-president of research at CNIB, told Global News it’s an “epidemic.”

“We’re definitely seeing a lot more kids at a much younger age and I don’t know how long this will continue,” Gordon said.

For their research, the pair got permission from the Waterloo school boards and parents to test kids’ eyesight. Almost 18 per cent of kids across the board were nearsighted.

In Grades 1 and 2, about six per cent of kids already had vision problems. By Grade 6, the rate jumped to 28 per cent. This study quantifying prevalence in young kids is the “first of its kind” in Canada, Yang said.

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But the rates are significantly higher than what’s been recorded globally in previous generations.

While the pilot study had a small sample, Gordon said the results should apply across the country. The team’s next steps are to do a national study.

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Myopia is an inherited condition, but too much screen time or less time spent outdoors could be factors at play, too, the experts said.

The Canadian research found that if kids spent more time outdoors – to the tune of only an additional hour or so per week – their risk of nearsightedness decreased by 15 per cent.

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Your eyes are like muscles that need to be flexed. More time outdoors gives them an opportunity to practice focusing on further distances.

“Some people think the lifestyles of kids today are different from many years ago, but more research needs to be done to know exactly what may be going on,” Yang said.

Another troubling finding is that one-third of nearsightedness cases were undiagnosed and untreated. Keep in mind, youngsters can’t tell if they can’t see the blackboard.

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Gordon said the take-away message is that kids need to visit an optometrist for an eye test once before they start kindergarten and again every year after that.

Encourage your kids to spend time outdoors, too.

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carmen.chai@globalnews.ca