They're in their 40s, and have cataracts

SINGAPORE - Patients in their 40s and under are suffering from eye problems such as cataracts as the "myopic generation" comes of age.

These diseases are usually found in the elderly, but doctors have started noticing cases involving younger people.

They attribute this to the "cohort effect" - the first generation discovered to be suffering from widespread short-sightedness in the 1980s are growing up and experiencing more serious eye problems.

Singapore National Eye Centre medical director Donald Tan estimates that young cataract patients make up less than 5 per cent of the centre's cases.

Raffles Hospital deputy medical director Lee Jong Jian told The Straits Times that two out of 10 patients the hospital treats for the condition are aged under 60.

"The myopic generation is moving into their 40s," said the consultant ophthalmologist. "As the group is getting sizeable, they do get problems like cataracts."

One in three Primary 1 pupils is short-sighted, up from 12 per cent two decades ago. The problem was first flagged in the 1980s and has been linked to factors such as an increase in the time children spend studying.

This larger pool of short-sighted people also means that there are more cases of high myopia - which requires a corrective lens of more than 600 degrees.

It leads to a much higher risk of eye problems. "High myopia is a different kind of myopia," said Professor Tan. "We call it pathological. That's when you may get these complications."

The rise in short-sightedness means that adults will increasingly be more myopic than those before them.

Dr Colin Tan, a consultant ophthalmologist at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, led a national study published last year that found that 26per cent of people aged 65 to 74 suffer from myopia. But the proportion rises to 32 per cent for those who are a decade younger.

"This has been observed in other populations in the West and in Asia as well," said Dr Tan.

Ms Kang Seok Lan's short-sightedness suddenly took a turn for the worse last year - with her lens prescription climbing from 800 degrees to a high of 2,200 degrees last month.

The 47-year-old, who is in the restaurant business, was unable to make out steps in front of her, stumbling and spraining her ankle on several occasions.

"My optician realised that it's not right that I have to change spectacles every six months - and the degree jumps tremendously each time," she said. In the end, she was found to have a cataract in her right eye.

Other problems to which short-sighted people are more prone include retina detachment and macular degeneration.

The retina is a layer of cells at the back of the eye, while the macular is the centre part of the retina that focuses light. In myopia, the eyeball becomes longer. This can stretch the retina, causing tears and bleeding inside the eyeball.

Despite the cases of younger patients, these diseases still mostly affect the elderly.

Meanwhile, people can look out for signs that eye diseases such as cataracts may be striking earlier than expected. Dr Lee said one telltale sign is when the eyes become more sensitive to light.

"Another is if the myopia starts to increase way beyond the normal rate," he added. "For instance, when there is a need to change glasses every six months."

chpoon@sph.com.sg


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