Why Do Asian People Have Bad Eyesight?

Why do so many Asian kids wear glasses? And why are we always nearsighted, rather than farsighted?

There are two typical explanations that people generally accept.  First, that it’s genetic and tied to Asian genes.  Second, that Asian parents make Asian kids read so much that they mess up their eyesight.  The genetic explanation is widespread in the Asian American community; I know at least one person who wanted to marry out as a way of helping her kids’ eyesight.  The “too much reading explanation” is also widespread: I remember WAY back when in the early blogosphere–before PUA and LASIK surgery were widespread–one Asian American male website even went as far as to recommend that Asian men, in order to boost their success with the ladies, read books “only when necessary!”

But now there’s a new explanation: lack of sunlight.

“Humans are naturally slightly long-sighted. We see that in rural populations all round the world. But when you start intensive schooling, and spend little or no time outdoors, you get this dramatic rise in myopia. In some East Asian cities 80-90 per cent of children are affected – and governments and the World Health Organisation are very worried about it.”

“The idea that ‘reading makes you short-sighted’ has been popular for a couple of hundred years. But recent data shows that the time spent indoors is a more important factor. Children who read a lot, but still go outdoors, have far less myopia.”

Professor Morgan explained that myopia is essentially an eye that has grown too long, and once it is too long, you can’t shorten it again: “So you have to stop it happening in the first place.

“Our hypothesis is that the light intensity experienced outdoors – which can be hundreds of times brighter than indoor light – causes a release of dopamine, which is known to block the growth of the eyeball. This prevents it taking on the distorted shape found in myopic people. We are now testing this idea.”

According to the findings, just a few more hours spent outdoors each day can protect children’s eyes from the burden of glasses.

This explanation is probably the most common sense explanation I’ve read.  The genetic explanation is shaky–my four grandparents all have or had better eyesight than me.  The “too much reading” explanation is also shaky; I know lots of well read Asian people with perfect vision. Most spend lots of time outdoors.  Also, Asians as a group do very well in sports that require better-than-perfect eyesight like golf, archery, and riflery. These sports usually take place outdoors, where they are likely to get that dopamine burst while practicing.

It probably also makes sense because you’re more likely to “shorten” your eyes when you’re outdoors. How many indoor activities require the same distance viewing as locating a golf ball or shooting a target?

What do you think?  How is your eyesight?  And what do you think of the sunlight theory? (Note to Alpha and Mojo–do you both have perfect eyesight? I think people in law enforcement have to be able to shoot without glasses, right? Did you both spend lots of time in the sun while growing up?)


47 thoughts on “Why Do Asian People Have Bad Eyesight?

  1. Hi, this is actually a very good post – I was adopted from Korea and I have glaucoma…since I was a kid. Since this is more common in older people – I was not tested for a long time which took away a lot of my peripheral vision. Please get tested – it is common in Asians!

  2. This is a very interesting read, it is amazing that this information is not more widely known, we could prevent a lot of suffering! Thanks for writing it :)

  3. Thanks, Lucy.

    I’ve spoken to some Australians and Americans since posting this, and I think there may be some validity behind it. I’m hoping more info comes out.

  4. you have no idea at all about optics, genetics or common sense for that matter.

    1. myopia doesn’t necessarily mean you have eyes that are too long. it could be that your cornea angles the refracted light too much.

    2. genetics is much more complicated than “my grandparents don’t have it, then it must not be genetic” read a book before spewing nonsense to idiots that believe everything they read on the internet

    3. with your ‘sunlight theory’, how do you explain the fact that northern chinese people have almost always perfect vision while they live further away from the equator (=less sunlight) than their hong-kong born friends.

  5. I don’t know, man. I spoke to a licensed practicing optometrist and a licensed optician about this theory soon after I posted it, and they both said it makes sense, even if it was not yet provable. Keep in mind that the people at the Vision Centre are also scientists at big universities. They aren’t just anonymous goofballs on the internet.

    1. I’m not sure where you are getting this. Myopia does mean that your eyes are too long. The way your lenses refract light depend on the length.

    2. That’s funny because whenever I have a medical exam, they always ask me whether certain genetic issues exist in my family. I’ve had this experience with doctors on both coasts. Major insurance like Kaiser Permanente ask questions about family to determine genetics. Genetics must have some correlation to family. If I’m wrong, tell me how.

    3. Maybe they spend more time outdoors?

    Again, these are theories. If you have alternate theories, feel free to post them here or contact the Vision Centre in Australia.

  6. “Genetics must have some correlation to family.”

    Wow. You are just now realizing this? Isn’t this common sense? No wonder you were so clueless when we last debated. :)

    I’m interested in the eyesight thing too, but as with all things, it’s probably a combination of all the factors that makes Asians predisposed to bad eyesight. Eyesight probably has SOMETHING to do with genetics, but whether its racial or not, I don’t know. Almost everyone in my family wears glasses. I have 20/20 vision. I spend a ton of time outdoors, so if there’s an environmental component, this might explain it.

  7. i remember reading an article somewhere that recent generations of Singapore kids have higher rates of myopia than previous ones.

    they think it’s due to too much reading, tv and computer games; all of which are close range visual activities

  8. I blame it Kanji. I think asian kids have to spend a lot of their childhood memorizing the written language. Wonder if near-sightedness is as bad for 3rd generation and higher asians who are more likely to have only learned english as kids.

    Anyways, I read somewhere that there are studies that show that near-sightedness is virtually unheard of amongs the illiterate.

  9. i am Korean but spent most of my life in America…. i have always LOVED the outdoors and even enjoy hiking and other outdoor activities that require using a lotttt of energy.
    i sit inside a lot because my parents, being the ASIANSSS that they are, are ALWAYS telling me study.
    some of my friends even go to TOEFL + SAT academies after school every other day to study something that they aren’t even learning at school for four hours, then coming home and having very little time to complete a pile of homework. procrastination makes them start their homework even LATER, so many kids in my grade sleep around 4, or 4:30 a.m.
    many of them wear either contacts or glasses… mostly contacts. ahaha
    i wear glasses but my eyesight isn’t that bad… it’s around -0.5.

  10. Interesting stuff.

    I really do believe this sunlight theory, and so I try to get the family outside as much as I can. Of course, it’s always raining in Portland.

  11. I’m Asian and started getting nearsighted only recently, when I had to work on my thesis and had to spend hours in front of the computer. Neither my parents had bad eyes as a teenager and I spent a lot of time outdoors even as a child. I think getting bad eyesight is a combination of many factors including reading habits, genetics, nutrition, etc., and yeah, maybe including sunlight exposure.

  12. Hmm, I must be an exception, my eyesight is 20/20. Then again I’m pretty young so it might get worse.

    Protip: keep your windows open during the day and let the natural sunlight in, save electricity and your eyesight.

  13. ummmmm……. as an actual eye doctor in real life, there’s some holes in this article. And keeping your windows open while you’re in front of the computer is NOT going to save you from getting nearsighted.
    Being outside helps – not because sunlight is reaching your eyes. In reality – UV exposure to your eyes is bad – causes cataracts, pterygiums, and is bad for the retina. But being outside makes you focus on things far away in the distance, and keeps your accommodation relaxed. So if you’re doing a lot of sport-like activity things – your working distance to the target is far, so the eyes keep a far focal point.
    If you spend most of your time indoors, naturally most of your objects/visual targets are at a closer focal point and so your eyes have to accommodate to keep them clear. The more accommodation your eyes have to do in this unnatural setting, the more likely they will change and become nearsighted. Also comes into play is one’s specific binocular status, meaning how their eyes fuse images together and their vergence abilities.

  14. Linda,

    What do you think about the original Australian article (the one linked in the original post)? About the dopamine theory?

    Dali,

    Linda can probably say something more about this, but I think if you can make it to your early late teens or early twenties without glasses, your chance of being seriously myopic is probably a lot less. I think eyesight and vision degeneration is somehow tied to one’s physical growth and tends to stabilize once one’s physical growth stabilizes. Linda, is this the case?

    Dali, did you spend a lot of time outdoors as a kid?

  15. Forget about Asian eyesight!!!

    Linda, I have these little floaty things in my vision and I…. LOL! Just kidding. :-)

    I’ve always wondered how often doctors are set upon for casual diagnosis, once they reveal their occupation.

  16. King,

    You had to let the cat out of the bag. And here we all could’ve gotten some free advice. I for one was hoping to discuss Lasik.

  17. God damn it, King. How many times do I have to tell you to stop sniffing the paint thinner?

  18. Can you believe that my eyesight is so bad that I don’t qualify for Lasik? (According to my eye doctor.) However, I can get these… implants (?), which as it was described to me sounds like permanently implanting contact lenses into my eyes. Though even for that procedure, I still need to wait a couple of more years before I qualify for even that. Blah.

  19. King: Not.. helping.. !! WHY WOULD YOU SHOW ME THAT PIC? ZOMG. You’re a terror. I am going to resort to ad hominem attacks now.

  20. @bigwowo – generally eyesight does stabilize in your 20’s….. so a big reason why LASIK can’t be done on kids under 18. (also, if anything goes wrong in surgery for a kid, you can be sued even 20 yrs later). However, w/ more and more of our work/home environment dependent on staring at a close screen or multiple screens for hours on end, this is a big factor in eyesight still changing for many people even into their late 20’s/early 30’s. It’s not just the near work, but the computer screen pixel images (maybe the type of light is a factor here) that causes a slightly different focus response than if we were reading a newspaper or book. It’s not uncommon that I’ll have patients in their early-mid 20’s boast of perfect vision all throughout highschool/college, but once they hit the workforce and are literally staring at a computer screens all day and night, they become nearsighted. And it’s not uncommon that I’ll have post-LASIK patients get into glasses or contact again b/c of the same type of visual environment they are in. Again, someone’s binocular status also contributes to how fast their myopia progresses. Some ppl won’t get more nearsighted, but they get a lot of eye strain when doing near work so they take more visual breaks and adapt in other ways.

    The NYtimes article is a bit misleading. Possibly dopamine/sunlight exposure may affect how the eyeball develops, but the more time one is spending outdoors, the less time one is staring at a computer screen or something else that is near. Even if one isn’t specifically doing a near task, if someone is indoors, in general all your visual targets are at close range, so there is always some type of accommodation going on. Only when someone is outdoors, your visual targets vary much more, and your accommodation can truly be “relaxed” as it should be and less factors are in play to cause myopia.

    I guess a real experiment for the “sunlight” theory would be to have children in a sunlight closed room w/ tv, books, computer, classroom stuff, etc….but a natural light setting from an entire ceiling window and see if they get just as nearsighted over the course of a few years as children in a normal urban setting.

    I’ve had a stable Rx for about 10 years, until about 2 years ago my work environment changed and I was doing a lot of research on the computer all day long. This lasted for about 6-8 months and in the midst of it, my Rx started changing. It drove me crazy b/c I never thought I was seeing clearly.

    Then when everyone hits their 40’s – you will all lose your ability to accommodate on near targets, so the eye changes again – but this is a different mechanism/different part of the eye that changes than when someone gets nearsighted.

    And then if one gets cataracts – biggest cause is SUN – UV exposure (sunglasses are very important!), smoking, diabetes…. cataract surgery today is amazing. It’s basically cataract and refractive surgery together b/c the new lens implants available today correct for your prior prescription, so many many ppl that get cataract surgery in the states today will not need glasses afterwards.

    But being nearsighted is not really a “bad” thing anymore, evolutionarily. Its not really unhealthy (save for a slightly higher risk of having a retinal detachment). If you can wear contacts, the Rx’es go up to -20.00. For disposables, up to -12.00. And once you get a little cataract, your eye doc can implant an even better lens to rid you of glasses/contacts if you want after the surgery. There’s too much stigma associated w/ being nearsighted today that doesn’t really apply anymore since we have so many options to correct it.

  21. I’m just amazed by how much eye care is changing these days. I know some people in the business who have these contacts that people wear at night, and when they wake up, they can see without contacts. It’s wild!

    Despite all the corrections, I still think it’s good to have perfect eyesight. For one, surgery is kinda scary. I heard that people who get LASIK have about 15% less moisture in their eyes. For contact lens people, it’s still a pain because you can’t wear contacts when you swim. I had to give up my MMA career because you can’t wear contacts when you fight. (This is a joke; I’ve never stepped inside the Octagon. Although there was a guy on the Ultimate Fighter whose doctors told him he couldn’t fight anymore after getting punched repeatedly in the eyes…)

    http://mmajunkie.com/news/23756/after-tuf-13-run-ended-in-eye-surgery-zach-davis-isnt-set-on-retirement.mma

    Anyway, in the meantime, I’m going to try to make sure my kids get lots of outdoor time, whether it’s because of longer distances or brightness-induced dopamine. Sunglasses are important when it’s really bright–UV isn’t too good for eyes. I do hope they follow up on the studies to see what’s really causing myopia; maybe they can do the study that you mention. I know some Chinese Australians, and their eyesight is perfect!

  22. asian parents dont really care how their kids look. I had to save up my own money to fix my eyesight. I see so many asian kids with these horrible nerdy looking glasses. They need to change that up.

  23. Hmmm. Probably explains why I have poor eyesight (half asian here). My mom has poo eyesight too so I probably have it in my genes? But I also don’t spend much time either….

  24. This sunlight factor is a very solid lead. I have also heard another hypothesis recently about short-sightedness in the young, that it could be caused by feedback from the BRAIN adapting eye growth for persistent short distance usage. I.e because the eyes spend very little time focusing for and searching for objects at long distance, the lack of stimulus causes the eyes not to grow properly in relation to the child.

  25. Doh, I just saw Linda’s latest post. +_+’

    Thanks a for the explanations Linda. When I have children they will have a lot of happy times outdoors. I have noticed among my cousins that children today spend most of their time indoors or at school. It’s very sad.

  26. Hi,
    I starting to notice that my eyesight is now turning bad. I worked 8 hrs a day infront of computer and after office I used to watch movie in my laptop for 3 hrs. Aside from that, before I go to sleep its been my habit to read book until my eyes get tired. Is there someone have the same problem like mine. I can’t stop my daily routine. What should I do? tnx.

  27. Riza,

    If the studies are correct, maybe try to spend more time outdoors. I know some companies have automated software that forces laptop users to take a break. I don’t know where you live, but if you can maybe try doing something outdoors for just 1/2 hour a day where your eyes can take in light and you can focus at long distances, it might be helpful for your eyes.

    Now that the summer is here, I’ve started taking long nature walks with the kids, and my eyes feel better.

  28. By the way, my captcha was:

    “yuralit God”

    “You’re a literature god?” I’m not sure if they were talking about me or bigWOWO the site. :)

  29. This is a good post but I’m already wearing glasses and I’m a homebody. But what this does remind me of days where I use to play outside…and subsequently stare at the sun for mini seconds. Don’t ask. I wonder if I start going a couple hours without my glasses and take a peek outside how that will affect my sight. I’m still young therefore I still must have a chance to fix these eyeballs of mine. LOL.

    I wonder what’s going to happen to all those Nook and Kindle readers? (Glad I’m still into books, the physical kind that is.)

  30. Pingback: Health286 | Is there a link between being asian and having poor vision …?

  31. I spoke to my optometrist about this. Several. One said the gene thing – horny short sighted guy passed down his genes to the rest of us. Invention of glasses – so technology saved us from being weeded out in the survival of the fittest. Another said he looked into this and it was because we have gone from agrarian to urban society within a matter of a generation or two. From pastures and farm work to concrete jungles and white collar work, so our eyes have had a hard time adapting.

  32. “One said the gene thing – horny short sighted guy passed down his genes to the rest of us. “

    Among guys, “horny” and “short-sighted” often go together. :)

    I think you maybe right about the agrarian to white collar thing, or maybe it’s an indoor/outdoor thing. Maybe that’s a reason my grandparents have always had better vision than me.

  33. The poll should have a choice that it’s a combination of all three. You need a genetic predisposition towards myopia (which asians may have a higher rate of) along with excessive near-work and lack of sunlight, which brings out that predisposition. There are people (like me) who did not develop myopia even though I was forced endure painfully long hours in school reading.

  34. There’s no way a 80-90% rate of near sightedness in Asians is purely down to not being out doors enough.

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