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More years spent studying contributes to a higher risk of myopia

In a recent study published in the BMJ, researchers examined if more years in education is a risk factor for having myopia.

Could there be a reason why the common depiction of a nerd wears glasses? Also called short-sightedness, or a refractive error, myopia is a common eye condition. It is one of the leading causes of visual impairment. Such visual impairments include retinal detachment, glaucoma, and myopic maculopathy (high level of myopia).

Myopia disables a person to see distant objects as they appear faint and blurred, while close-up objects appear clear. Currently, in the United States and Europe, myopia affects 30-50% of the population and 1.4 billion people worldwide. By 2050, that number is expected to increase to five billion people worldwide. Studies show that myopia initiates and develops in childhood. Once adulthood is reached, myopia rarely progresses, if at all.

In a study published by BMJ, researchers examined 67,798 participants between the ages of 40 and 69 to determine if more time spent studying contributes to a higher risk of being short-sighted. Participants consisted of men and women from England, Wales, and Scotland.

Through the UK Biobank, the researchers asked the participants about their education level and work experiences. They completed further analysis through the use of the Mendelian randomisation method.

Using the genome-wide association study (GWAS) 23andMe, they asked the participants if they had ever been professionally diagnosed with myopia. The participants were also genetically tested. The researchers studied 44 genetic variants linked to myopia and 69 genetic variants linked to education tendencies. Considering a total of 113 genetic variants allowed researchers to attain accurate information regarding participants’ time spent in education, and if myopia was present and at what level. Researchers needed to know whether participants left full-time education before or after the age of 16.

Individuals who went to college or university were more likely to be short-sighted

Outcomes uncovered that more years in education resulted in a risk for myopia, and one extra year in education showed a higher myopic refractive error of -0.27 dioptres. With this being said, a person who went to college or university is more likely to have myopia than a person who left school at age sixteen. Glasses would be required to see far-away objects and to be able to operate a vehicle. Despite the overall perception that glasses wearers are nerdy intellectuals, there was a minimal amount of evidence that myopia affects the number of time people stay in education.

Environmental and social factors also play a role

Environmental and social factors may play a role in developing myopia, too. Less exposure to natural light could increase the risk for myopia, while a higher natural light exposure may help avoid it.

Studies show that individuals who spend more years in education spend less time in natural light and more time with “near work” activities such as reading and writing. This has developed the idea that “bright light classrooms” can protect children against myopia, and it is important they spend more time outside. It is imperative to note that myopia develops at a faster rate during the darker winter months.

The authors mention a few limitations to this analysis. Considered unethical, researchers around the globe are unable to study children of varying levels of education. Also, individuals who have partaken in the UK Biobank are healthier and much more educated than the average UK citizen. The chance of this affecting the study’s outcome is minor. A large number of participants and genetic variables made this a strong research analysis.

Education on this topic is important to help decrease the prevalence of myopia and other visual complications. Further studies and conversations are necessary to educate parents, children, and school staff on this topic.

Written by Laura Laroche, HBASc, Medical Writer

References:

(1) Education linked to higher risk of short-sightedness. 2018, https://www.bmj.com/company/newsroom/education-linked-to-higher-risk-of-short-sightedness/, assessed 21 June. 2018.
(2) Mountjoy, Edward. et al. “Education and myopia: assessing the direction of causality by mendelian randomisation.” BMJ. June 21, 2018. 361: 1-11. Online.

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