Environmental Factors Might Trump Genetics Regarding Vision

Investigating the connections between nearsightedness and intelligence.

Back in the mid-1980s when I was a graduate student at MIT, two researchers sifting through data from a Johns Hopkins study on mathematically gifted children found that intelligent people were more likely to be left-handed and suffer from allergies and myopia.

Now one would assume that an elite group of students with rigorous training in research methodology and statistical analysis would consider these findings little more than a weak association or a spurious correlation. But one would be wrong. 

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Critical thinking, it seems, is threatening to the ego. Friends immediately began canvassing friends about which, if any, of the three characteristics they possessed. I have allergies but am right-handed and far-sighted. I was beginning to worry if a de-admissions process was in the offing.

I never had much faith in those findings—probably because I only had one of the indicators—but it would come back to haunt me on occasion. Was I reasonably intelligent or just a rabid overachiever who lucked into one of the most prestigious schools in the world? This inquiring mind still wanted to know.

I may have gotten some answers from a new study published online in the journal “Ophthalmology.” The study suggests that environmental factors might trump genetics when it comes to predicting whether a person would develop myopia. Researchers at the University Medical Center in Mainz, Germany, examined the eyes, genes and education of 4,658 German subjects and found that participants with more schooling were more myopic than participants with less education. 

The implication is that activities that require focus on nearby objects, such as reading, staring at a computer monitor or sewing, strains the eyes. Studies dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s have made similar findings, but the root cause of myopia remains a mystery.

“There’s been a ton of research, everybody wants to figure out what’s making everybody near-sighted or even more near-sighted,” says Dr. John Otto, director of eye care at Christiana Care Health System. “A lot of the studies have tried to relate different (behaviors), whether or not school is doing it or staring up close is doing it.  We know there’s a relationship but it’s not proving anything.”

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And if it can’t prove that education warps the eyes, it certainly can’t prove that the myopic are any smarter than their non-afflicted peers. In the words of the study’s lead researcher: “Just because someone isn’t nearsighted, doesn’t mean they will do badly in school.”

So there. I stand vindicated.


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