My dad (an optometrist also) and I are what I like to refer to as optometric geeks – we both enjoy lectures. Sad but true. This is a fantastic opportunity for me because my dad is a brilliant guy and we have a ready-made common interest. How many of us can say we have a shared passion with a parent?
I think that the real test of a lecture is whether it actually gives the practitioner the impetus to change what he or she does in everyday practice. From a lecture we were at last week, this week I am giving different advice to the parents of young children about UV protection. As a practitioner who takes a special interest in young children’s eyes, I was very aware of the damage UV can do to young people. Even I didn’t realise the sheer scale of the damage and how early in life it actually occurs.
Inside the human eye just behind the pupil, there is a little lens which is an amazing piece of technology. It is only one of literally hundreds of amazing little pieces of technology within the human eye but we’ll start with this one. It works as an extremely accurate and lightening quick autofocus mechanism. The result is a razor sharp image of objects at a wide range of distances being focused on the retina (the retina is like the film in the camera).
The trouble is that this little lens changes throughout life. With regard to filtering out UV, it actually gets better as we get older. A lot better. At the age of 10, 75% of the UV gets through the lens. At age 25, only 25% gets through. Consequently more UV gets to the back of the eye.? This is compounded by the fact that children’s pupils are larger – a lot larger. Also, they spend a massive amount of time outdoors (take this from a man who spends his day in a darkened room). To cap it all off, a staggering 90% of the UV can come through even on a cloudy day. This means that those of you who wear their sunglasses when the sun isn’t shining aren’t just trying a little too hard to look good!
Now, as those of us with young children will know, trying to get our little darlings to keep their sunglasses on is an impossible task. Don’t worry, you don’t have to add cataract and age-related macular degeneration to the list of other damage we parents have done to our children – I have a plan that I think works.
Up until the point where your child will enjoy wearing sunglasses (maybe 2½ or 3 years) plonk a sun-hat on them. The most recent research shows that a wide-brimmed hat is fantastically effective at protecting eyes from UV. The wearing of sunglasses is a war of attrition – through sheer bloody-mindedness and persistence you will get them in the long grass. They won’t even know they are wearing sunglasses. Children’s skin is very sensitive and they will be terribly aware of the physical sensation of sunglasses to begin with. Thankfully our incredible brain has a structure which filters out repeated and uninteresting stimulus – an itchy jumper is only itchy for about 45 minutes. This means that at some stage your child will become much less aware of the physical sensation of the sunglasses.
I think that the best way to do it is to keep a couple of pairs of good quality (nice smooth, soft, bendy plastic) wrap-around CE marked sunglasses in the car. Let the child use them as a toy – they should take a remarkable amount of abuse. To begin with, they will fold them, twist them, bend them, slobber on them and throw them on the floor. After a year or two they will see you putting on your sunglasses and they will put theirs on…and take them off. And put them on and take them off, and put them on and take them off…for about another year. Then one day it will be really bright and they will chance upon putting their sunglasses on. And they will find it more comfortable… and you have won.
You can see what I am doing here, simply introducing the concept of sunglasses early on and letting the child come around to the idea of it. This means that by age 3 or 4, your child is wearing sunglasses by choice. I think that this is a world better than spoiling your day out at the beach by having a good old scrap with your beloved off-spring.
50% of the UV damage in the human eye is already done by the age of 18. Let give our kids the best fighting chance of having clear, enjoyable vision in their 60s, 70s and 80s so that they too can enjoy their children and grandchildren.