Don’t be shortsighted. How to take care of your eyes

Your education might be figuratively robbing you blind, but could it literally be making you blind?

Geeky student with glassesTo many of us, buying glasses, like going bald or developing a gut, is one of the hazards of aging. But before you shrug off vision loss as something only Grandpa needs to worry about, picture Lionel, the pale nerd-boy with three-inch thick lenses.

Surprisingly, heredity isn’t responsible for his four-eyed curse. No, Lionel’s myopia — nearsightedness — is entirely self-imposed, resulting from long hours spent poring over the books and his PC. Sound familiar? Your intelligence may not make you go blind, but your education just might.

If you plan to limit your reading in college to the text on the mac and cheese box, you have little to fear. But numerous studies suggest the conscientious student will continue to experience vision loss.

“If you examine incoming college freshmen and track them through graduation, you find that 80 to 90 percent require a stronger prescription,” said optometrist Dr. Dean Wright. “Since most of the genetic element is revealed before age 18, the degeneration of the eye is primarily based on environmental factors. Near work such as reading and writing takes a toll.”

Even after college, certain careers prove more injurious than others. According to Dr. Wright, professionals such as lawyers and accountants who rely on computers will continue to become more myopic long after they earn their degrees. Perhaps because the average U.S. citizen is more educated today than a generation ago, trends show the incidence of myopia has dramatically increased. Yet despite such alarming statistics, experts battle with the classic “nature vs. nurture” debate and cannot confidently identify the cause.

“Nearsigtedness may simply be a product of living in an industrial society,” said John Shoemaker, Assistant Vice President at Prevent Blindness America. Researchers find few nearsighted individuals in traditionally organized Eskimo or Native American populations. Nevertheless, when a society starts to Westernize, visual impairment often becomes more prevalent within the society. The number of Japanese myopia patients nearly tripled over a 24-year period of industrialization.

Are Students Doomed To Blindness?
The notion that myopia is inevitable for societies such as ours paints a grim picture. But optometrist Dr. Cheryl Bloom offers hope, suggesting that students should be proactive about their eye care. “You have complete control over the posture of the eye, the reading distance and the number of breaks you take,” Dr. Bloom said.

Students place themselves in danger when reading in poor lighting, working without breaks or sitting at poorly organized computer work stations/video display terminals (VDTs).

“During finals I have trouble focusing and my eyes become irritated after long hours staring at the monitor.” said Duke University sophomore Rob Dart. Shayna Maskell, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, reported, “I get dizzy, disoriented and (my eyes become) red. It’s like studying gets you wasted.”

What Can We Do?
Eyestrain, fatigue, and irritation do not merely suggest a temporary problem. They are indications that your habits may result in long-term damage. Blurry vision occurs when the muscles cannot relax as a result of reading for prolonged periods of time. This is the eyes sending a visual stress warning. Here’s how to heed the warning:

    * Take frequent breaks during long study sessions. Dr. Wright suggests that students periodically look up from reading and focus on a spot in the distance. This provides the muscles with a brief period of relief if the student is too tired for a walk or a pizza run.
    * Find a well-lit spot in the library or your dorm room. Fraternity party lighting is inappropriate for healthy studying.
    * Rearrange your computer monitor by following the advice of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. The organization suggests positioning the monitor 18-26 inches away from your eyes at eye level or slightly below. Also, limit reflection by keeping the surrounding light fairly dim or by using an antiglare screen. Don’t ignore the fact that something as simple as dust can seriously affect your monitor; keep it clean.
    * Eat a healthy diet to avoid the freshman 15 and laser eye surgery. Your mom knew what was up when she nagged you to finish your carrots, which are high in eye-healthy beta-carotene. Vitamins C and E can also prevent the cataract formation.
    * Routinely visit your eye doctor. “Your optometrist can identify alarming trends, outfit you with computer-specific glasses or discuss some experimental possibilities like eye muscle exercises,” said Bloom. Hard contacts can also be help out, because they prevent the shape of the eye from changing.

Don’t blame your need for progressively thicker lenses or a sea of saline solution on heredity or environment. You are ultimately responsible for the health of your eyes. Take precautions, and you can still read the signs…only if properly illuminated of course.