Monday, July 25, 2011

Laser surgery for myopia early in life may create reading problems after 40

Shortsightedness, or myopia, seems to be endemic in urban populations. The National Institutes of Health suggests that myopia cannot be prevented, and that neither reading nor watching television causes myopia. I find that doubtful, as reading is a rather unnatural activity, and there is evidence that myopia is significantly associated with amount of reading at early ages.


Trying to avoid reading early in life would not be a highly recommended Paleolithic-mimicking choice, except for those who later decide to live among hunter-gatherers. (In spite of our romantic views of hunter-gatherer life, it is very rare to see an urbanite do this outside the context of anthropological studies.) Education requires a lot of reading, and without education in urban environments one is likely to end up suffering from other diseases of civilization. Diabetes, for example, is strongly and inversely associated with education level in urban environments.

Also, keeping up with friends on Facebook, without which life as we know it now could go on, requires a lot of reading and writing.

A different theory, often associated with Cordain, is that myopia is due to consumption of industrial carbohydrate-rich foods. Interestingly, according to Cordain and colleagues, myopia is typically accompanied by higher stature, a finding that is supported by empirical evidence. The idea here is that industrial carbohydrate-rich foods promote abnormal growth patterns during developmental stages, which arguably include abnormal growth of the human eye and its various structures.

Avoiding industrial carbohydrate-rich foods during developmental stages is feasible, but currently very difficult given public health policies that strongly promote the consumption of some of those foods, during development stages, as healthy choices (e.g., cereals). In part as a result of those policies, and also due to budget constraints (those foods tend to be generally cheap), industrial carbohydrate-rich foods are frequently served as meals in schools.

Okay, now to the main topic of this post. Let us say a person has myopia, should he or she fix it surgically?

As one ages, the ability to read at a short-distance (as in reading from books, or from a computer screen) goes down, because the ability to focus on short-distance objects becomes impaired. This phenomenon is called presbyopia, and is also associated with excessive reading. Therefore it could be called a disease of civilization as well. Most college professors at the level of Associate Professor and higher I know (that is, older folks, like me) have developed it, sometimes as early as in their late 30s.

In the general population, normally presbyopia sets in between 40 and 50 years of age, requiring the use of "reading glasses" afterwards … except for those with myopia. This is sometimes called the “myopia payoff of presbyopia”. People with myopia are often able to read well, without the help of glasses, after presbyopia sets in. The reason is that myopia essentially opposes presbyopia at short distances.

Someone with myopia will still have it after presbyopia sets in, and thus will have difficulty seeing at long distances, but will frequently be able to read well at short distances.

So, if you undergo eye laser surgery (the most common type) to correct myopia early in life, you may create reading problems after 40.

P.S.: A friend of mine who has been studying this tells me that eye problems in general are caused by avoidance of indirect sunlight. I am planning on looking into this more deeply in the future.