Scientists have been tracking a big global increase in cases of myopia. Is our love affair with screens to blame?

Myopia, or shortsightedness, means that the eye has difficulty seeing objects at a distance.
Updated 18 September 2018
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Scientists have been tracking a big global increase in cases of myopia. Is our love affair with screens to blame?

  • An epidemic of human shortsightedness is now sweeping the world
  • Between 2000 and 2050 the number of short-sighted people on the planet will rise from 1.5 billion to about 5 billion, an increase of more than 230 percent

LONDON: We think of evolution as a glacially slow business, a gradual adaptation of physical or behavioral characteristics over thousands of years in response to environmental prompts. 

Lions with short teeth struggle to bring down prey to feed themselves and their offspring. In time, they and their inadequate dentistry vanish from the gene pool, surrendering the savannah to lions with longer teeth. In fact, in 1859 Charles Darwin, noting the “astonishing” variety of breeds descended from a single species of pigeon, identified two types of evolutionary change — slow and incremental, and rapid and dramatic. The latter he termed “monstrosities,” a “considerable deviation of structure in one part, either injurious to or not useful to the species.” 

That’s a definition that could well be applied to the epidemic of human shortsightedness now sweeping the world.

Over time, evolution gave us excellent sight. If you couldn’t see well, you couldn’t hunt for food or dodge the carnivores hunting you, which meant you either starved or were eaten and your genes would not be passed on. Natural selection at play. But now changes in lifestyle are, by evolutionary standards, almost overnight sabotaging tens of thousands of years of fine-honing visual acuity.

Over the past few years, research analyzing decades of data has shown that myopia has become increasingly common. This brings a range of consequences, from the cost and lifestyle-hampering inconvenience of the need for glasses or contact lenses, to the long-term complications of myopia, which increases the risk of cataracts, glaucoma and even retinal detachment later in life.

A paper published in the journal Ophthalmology in 2016, based on a systematic review of 145 studies from around the world, concluded that between 2000 and 2050 the number of short-sighted people on the planet will rise from 1.5 billion to about 5 billion, an increase of more than 230 percent.

About half of young people in Europe and the US are  shortsighted — twice as many as 50 years ago. The situation is even worse in East Asia, which, according to a report in the journal Nature, “has been gripped by an unprecedented rise in myopia,” affecting up to 90 percent of Chinese teens and young adults.

You don’t have to look far to see one possible cause. All around the world, people are staring at screens. At the same time, the average number of hours spent studying during childhood has also increased dramatically.

In today’s competitive global jobs market, a high premium is placed on education in many countries, including China, and children spend many hours staring at books or computer screens. So it does not come as a surprise to learn that researchers have found a direct correlation between shortsightedness and levels of educational attainment. In other words, there is truth in the old stereotype of the bespectacled swot.

But that is not the whole picture. Research in the US, Australia and Israel has suggested that time spent staring at books or screens is not the problem so much as the attendant reduction in time spent outdoors.

This first became evident in a study among the Inuit in the north of Alaska, where in one generation shortsightedness went from being almost non-existent to affecting one child in two as children spent less and less time engaging with traditional, outdoor pursuits, such as hunting.

Another study, in Australia, found that “higher levels of total time spent outdoors is associated with less myopia,” a finding replicated by a UK study in June this year. This provided strong evidence that “more time spent in education is a causal risk factor for myopia” and concluded that “the best recommendation, based on the highest quality available evidence at the moment, is for children to spend more time outside.”

That advice is seemingly upheld by a number of studies that myopia presents less commonly among children in certain countries in the Middle East — possibly because there is less emphasis, especially in remote rural areas, on intensive education. One study, among 400,000 children in Oman in 2003, found only 4.1 percent were shortsighted — a dramatically smaller percentage than in east Asia — and similar results have been reported in Iran.

Research in Amman, Jordan, found increased incidence of myopia was “significantly associated with ... computer use, and reading and writing outside school,” while playing sports reduced the risk. A study of the epidemic of shortsightedness among East Asian children, published this month in the journal Ophthalmology, concluded that prolonged attendance in crammer schools is a major risk factor for myopia among children aged 7 to 12. 

One country apparently bucking the global myopia trend is Norway, where educational standards are high. A paper published this month in the journal Scientific Trends suggests that this might be because “being outdoors is a part of the Norwegian culture and a major part of growing up.”

Children in Norwegian kindergartens spend two hours a day outdoors in the winter and at least four in the summer. At primary school all breaks are taken outdoors. Exposure patterns “quite different from those of children attending East Asian schools, where recess time usually is spent indoors.” Research from Taiwan has suggested that it is necessary for children to spend a minimum of two hours outdoors every day to prevent the onset of myopia.

As yet, no one has quite worked out why spending more time outdoors is good for our eyes, especially during the developmental years of childhood. But the message is clear: The competitive drive to equip our children with the best possible education must be balanced with the need to preserve their eyesight, a lesson that should be borne in mind as countries in the Middle East, particularly the Gulf Cooperation Council, recalibrate school systems for the new age.

For parents, schools and policymakers, that means making sure that our children spend as much time gazing toward the horizon, as toward their futures. Anything else is just plain short-sighted. 

 

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK. He specializes in health, a subject on which he writes for the British Medical Journal and others.
© Syndication Bureau


Saudi ‘smart glove’ inventor thrives in the age of innovation

Updated 21 min 26 sec ago
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Saudi ‘smart glove’ inventor thrives in the age of innovation

  • Hadeel Ayoub is the founder of BrightSign, a London-based company specializing in assistive technology
  • BrightSign's signature product is a smart glove that can facilitate communication by individuals with speech disability

LONDON: Saudi inventor and tech innovator Hadeel Ayoub is giving people who can’t speak new hope — and a new voice.

The founder of London-based tech company BrightSign is the driving force behind a smart glove that allows individuals who are unable to speak to communicate by translating sign language into text and speech.

After more than four years’ work, Ayoub, a designer, programmer and researcher in human computer interaction, plans to launch the device later this year.

Some of the biggest beneficiaries will be families with children who have speech disabilities and want to be better connected through technology. The BrightSign glove will enable these children to become better signers and communicators, but can also be hooked up with a web app to provide instant translation in most languages.

The architecture of a BrightSign glove is relatively straightforward: Multiple sensors, embedded under an outer glove, track finger positions, hand orientation and dynamic movements. The hardware is contained inside a slender wristband.

Hand gestures are translated into text that appears on a screen embedded in the glove, and speech is made audible via a mini-speaker. The user can select the voice and speech language.


BIO

• Founder and chieftechnology officer, BrightSign

• Experienced lecturer, researcher and entrepreneur with experience in the higher education industry

• Skilled in innovation, creative coding, programming and design research

• Ph.D. in human-computer interaction and gesture recognition from Goldsmiths, University of London


Ayoub has been featured in Forbes magazine, tech programs on the BBC and Discovery channels, and has spoken at discussions organized by Britain’s Financial Times and Guardian newspapers. She has also taken part in a number of exhibitions with innovation and assistive technology as their themes.

Recalling the inspiration for the smart glove, the Saudi inventor said she was originally designing a device for an air-draw program — the air was the canvas, and the hands and fingers were the drawing tools. Her aim was to replace the mouse and keyboard with trackable wearable technology.

On the basis of her design, Ayoub was selected to represent her university at an IBM global hackathon in artificial intelligence for social care. She reprogrammed the glove to translate sign language and won the competition.

When news of the smart glove was circulated in the media, Ayoub’s inbox was flooded with inquiriesttt from parents wanting the glove for their children, from speech therapists for their patients, and from teachers for their students.

The tech innovator quickly realized there was a need for this kind of technology and decided to make it the focus of her Ph.D. research.

Hadeel Ayoub’s BrightSign smart glove allows people with speech disabilities to translate sign language into text and voice. (Reuters)

“I want to break the current barriers facing those who wish to broaden their experience with sign language beyond the current traditional method,” Ayoub said.

She believes that at least three improvements are urgently needed: Integrating children with disabilities into mainstream classrooms; equipping adults who have disabilities with technologies that will help them perform tasks as well as their peers manage; and making smart-glove devices available in public locations such as airports, shopping malls, government offices and hospitals to offer a smoother service to visitors with disabilities.

A global award winner for her technological innovation, Ayoub regularly tests and improves the BrightSign glove, which she describes as a work in progress.

“The glove has gone through multiple rounds of prototyping and testing. I have implanted the users’ feedback to develop hardware, software and design,” she said.

“It is now being used in six schools to help non-verbal children overcome their communication challenges in the classroom.”

Ayoub said that further studies would help her develop the final product. “I am now taking glove pre-orders on the BrightSign website,” she said.

The Saudi inventor said that she has always been “a progressive thinker and a dreamer of possibilities,” and described a childhood spent immersed in books rather than playing with dolls.

She remembers her family library with fondness and reminisces on quiet evenings spend reading.

As well as being an innovator, Ayoub is a mother who talks lovingly about her children.

“They are very much involved in the development phases of BrightSign,” she said. “I consider their opinions on the products designed for children. I always encourage them to do what they love since that would mean that they will excel in it.

“They get excited every time they see someone using BrightSign and they can see how it helps people live better.

“They also understand the concept of tech for good and aspire to work one day on technologies with a social impact.”

Ayoub sees herself as problem solver with an eye for technical detail, a kind of instinctive trouble-shooter. “When I attempt to solve a problem, I go through cycles of trial and error until I achieve a breakthrough,” she said.

“I encountered a number of problems that were unprecedented, so I wasn’t able to turn to a source or a reference. I guess this is what prompted me to get creative and think outside the box, which eventually put me on the innovation route.

“I find dead ends challenging. When someone tells me that something has never been done, it does not mean that it is not doable. On the contrary, it motivates me to keep going until I find a solution.”

As for the current model of innovation, Ayoub admires the global interconnectedness.

“The mindset now is collaborative rather than competitive,” Ayoub said.

“I am part of inventors’ groups in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf region and the Middle East. Most of us got business training at some point in order to secure investment and go into production.”

I find dead ends challenging. It motivates me to keep going to find a solution.

Hadeel Ayoub

Being a innovator has been far from a walk in the park for Ayoub. She believes what really pushed her in her chosen field was her desire to learn something new in every degree she pursued, starting with design, then programming and, finally, technology.

“More often than not I find myself the only woman speaking at a tech conference or giving a tech talk at an event,” she said. “I am proud to represent my country in global exhibitions and am even prouder when I walk away with awards at competitions.

“I hope that I can inspire young girls to experiment with technology and use it to enhance their respective practices.

“I have created a ‘women in tech’ group where we have regular meetings to share our challenges and extend our support each other.”

Based on her experiences, Ayoub has a message for young Saudis: “This is the age of innovation and entrepreneurship. If what you are passionate about doesn’t exist as a field of knowledge, create it.

“Learn how to code. It will be useful in any career you pursue and will enable you to integrate technology into your practice.”