For a growing number of millennials, a routine visit to the optometrist might yield a surprising suggestion: Get reading glasses.
That’s not just because millennials are approaching middle age, with the oldest among them pushing 40. It’s also likely the result of spending much of their lives looking at screens—particularly after 18 months of a pandemic when there was little else to do.
“We have definitely been seeing changes that have occurred with regard to patients’ eyes,” says Kurt Moody, director of North America professional education at J&J Vision. “We spend so much time on digital devices—tablets, computers, phones—and that has had a negative effect on eyes.”
Fortunately, eye care companies are coming out with a slew of new products designed for a generation of contact-wearers who don’t want to give them up as they approach middle age.
How screens affect our eyes
Screen use isn’t new, of course. But for most people, the amount of time spent staring at screens increased during the pandemic. “More people are coming into optometric practices complaining of discomfort using screens,” says Michele Andrews, vice president of professional and government affairs, Americas at CooperVision.
There are a few different causes of that discomfort. One is that their eyes are over-dry. Staring at screens causes people to blink less frequently or half-blink so they don’t miss anything, which isn’t good for the eye. Without oil released during blinking, tears keeping the eyes moist become unstable and evaporate, which can cause many kinds of discomfort that people often mistake for eye strain, says Stephanie Marioneaux, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Another cause can be issues focusing the eye. “When people get into their early 40s—it happens to everyone—the lens inside the eye becomes less flexible…it can’t change shape as quickly as when you’re, say, 20,” Andrews says. That can make it more difficult for our eyes to do that same accommodation they used to do so easily, a condition called presbyopia. Presbyopia can set in earlier than 40 (called premature presbyopia) as a result of some other medical conditions or drugs, but some studies indicate that a lot of time spent doing work close up, including staring at a computer, can play a role.
In children, too much screen time has been associated with progressive myopia. Myopia is a condition when the eyeball grows differently than the space allotted for it, which makes things far away appear out of focus. The condition progresses over time; if it progresses into what is known as high myopia, patients face a higher risk of vision-threatening eye conditions, such as retinal detachments, glaucoma, or cataracts. Myopia is becoming more common—studies show that myopia may affect half of the global population by 2050.
What we can do about it
For nearly all of these issues, simple preventative measures can make a big difference. For dry eyes, just remembering to blink can often be helpful. “Now because people spend their lives in front of screens, everyone has gotten very good at suppressing the blink response,” Marioneaux says. To help stave off myopia, hold materials at least 14 inches away—“at a 90 degree-angle from elbow and hand, keep it at that distance,” Marioneaux adds—and take a break from the screen every 20 minutes to stare 20 feet away. Children are encouraged to spend at least two hours a day outside (studies show it can help slow myopia progression), limit screen time, and check with their eye doctor for other treatment options.
Eye care companies have been developing products for people who need help anyway. Most of them have been concentrating on contact lenses because that’s what many millennials are used to. “We have an aging population that has grown up on contact lenses, that wants to continue to wear contacts and transition into presbyopia as easily as possible,” Andrews says. “Aging has an emotional component to it, we want our vision to be like it used to be.”
Patients who need help focusing at different distances (say, were nearsighted but were also developing presbyopia) were once relegated to bifocal glasses or the more seamless progressive lenses. Contacts, though, were often elusive. “Multifocal lenses have been out for 20, 25 years, but uptake of them has been limited because they don’t work that well and they’re difficult to prescribe,” says Moody of J&J. His company spent five years focusing on fitting multifocal contacts by measuring patients’ pupil size (which affects their ability to accommodate) at different ages. The company has 183 different fits.
For patients who don’t yet have presbyopia but who are experiencing digital eye strain, CooperVision developed a new type of lens called Biofinity Energys specifically designed for use of digital devices. When they went on sale in 2016, uptake was slow, Andrews says. “What we did learn back in 2016 is that patients did not equate their discomfort when using digital devices to their eyes and did not bring it to a doctor’s attention. They’d feel tired at the end of the day and say, ‘Well, it was a long day.’” Now, as a result of the pandemic, more people are coming to their eye doctors with concerns about their eye health, resulting in an uptick in prescriptions, she adds.
Bausch + Lomb, too, is creating multifocal contacts to better work for presbyopic patients. It makes contacts designed to help patients see at near, intermediate, and far distances. It even makes multifocal lenses for people with astigmatism, an imperfection in the eye’s curvature that can further distort vision.
They’re also making contacts to address dry eye issues, either because of excessive screen time or merely as a factor of age. Daily lenses are generally considered better for people with dry eyes. J&J developed a silicone hydrogen for its Acuvue Oasys contacts that the company says keeps eyes more moist. Bausch + Lomb has a similar product, called INFUSE; it plans to launch a multifocal lens with this material next year.
What comes next
As time goes on, these companies will continue to create new products and materials to address the changing needs of patients. Myopia will likely play a big part in that—some experts predict 5 billion people worldwide will have myopia by 2050, which would put even bigger demands on contacts to be able to address strong prescriptions and astigmatism. In 2019, CooperVision’s MiSight 1 Day contacts became the first such contact to receive Food and Drug Administration approval to slow the progression of myopia in children ages eight through 12. A little prevention and even better options for treatment can help people see clearly and comfortably through all stages of life.
“I think what we’re all aiming for is a product where every need is met,” Andrews says. “Patients want great vision and comfort at a great price. They want it to be easy to put in and take out. That’s the ideal contact lens.” And in many ways, she adds, that’s always been the challenge.