Study shows myopia prevalence in children has more than doubled

New research, jointly funded by the College of Optometrists and Ulster University, has shown that myopia is more than twice as prevalent among children in the UK now than in the 1960s.

The Northern Ireland Childhood Errors of Refraction (NICER) study, conducted by researchers at Ulster University and published in PLOS ONE, is the largest longitudinal research undertaken in the UK to examine changes in children’s vision and cycloplegic refractive error over time. The latest findings, using data gathered from more than 1,000 children over six years, provides vital information on how children’s eyes grow and change in the 21st century.

The study has found that nearly one in five teenagers in the UK are now myopic, or short-sighted, and that children with one parent with myopia are at least three times more likely to be myopic than those without a myopic parent. This increases to over seven times more likely when both parents are myopes. It has also shown that myopia is most likely to occur between the ages of six and 13 years.

The study’s key findings include:

  • Nearly one in five teenagers in the UK are myopic
  • Myopia is more than twice as prevalent  among UK children now than in the 1960’s (16.4% vs 7.2%)
  • Prevalence of myopia in white children in the UK is similar to that of white children in other countries
  • Prevalence of myopia in white children in the UK is much lower than in Asian countries where the majority of school leavers are myopic. – for example, in South Korea, 96.5% of 19 year old males are myopic
  • Myopia is most likely to occur between six and 13 years of age
  • Children with one myopic parent are almost three times more likely to be myopic by age 13 than a child without a myopic parent – this increases to over seven times more likely when both parents are myopes
  • Children are becoming myopic at a younger age in the UK than in Australia – however, at ages 18-19 years, the prevalence of myopia in Australia and the UK is similar

Ulster University’s Professor Kathryn Saunders, lead investigator of the NICER study said: “These results give us a clear picture of how children’s eyes are developing, and ultimately could enable us to inform how optometrists practice and give advice to parents to help them protect their children’s precious eyesight, such as recommended ages for eyesight testing or specific risk factors that should indicate a sight test is needed”.

Mike Bowen, director of research for the College of Optometrists, said: “From this research we are seeing a clear increase in the prevalence of children with myopia. We would encourage parents to ensure that their children’s eyes are tested by an optometrist, particularly children of parents with myopia, as we see in this research; they are likely to inherit the condition. Research suggests that early intervention can help slow down further increases in myopia, so sight tests in children at most risk of developing myopia are very important.”

Dr Susan Blakeney, clinical adviser for the College of Optometrists, said: “In some areas, children will have vision screening in their first year of school, aged four to five.  If this doesn’t happen in your area, or if you have concerns about your child’s eyes (whatever their age), take them to your optometrist for a sight test.  This is paid for by the National Health Service. Children do not have to be able to read to have a sight test.  Your optometrist will then advise on when your child should be seen again.”

Researchers in other countries have shown that spending time outdoors protects against the onset and progression of myopia, but to date the NICER results do not support this but it is something they will continue to investigate. The NICER study researchers are currently re-testing the original two groups of subjects nine years after their original test date.

Professor Saunders will be presenting the latest NICER findings at the College of Optometrist’s annual conference, Optometry Tomorrow, on Monday 14 March, 9.00am.