I remember my junior year of high school, leaning over the boy who sat in front of me in class to copy his notes because I couldn’t see the board. Yes, I did think he was cute, but in this case, I just really wanted to know what the teacher was writing. That’s when I first got glasses. My vision dive-bombed from there and by the time I got LASIK two years ago, I had -4 prescription with astigmatisms in both eyes. My Dad has always had glasses, and my sister had glasses but her eyes corrected themselves over time (lucky duck). My mom just started wearing glasses full time last Friday. She’s had readers for a while, but now she needs them to see both far and close. Because glasses were so new to my mom, we spent a lot of time on our daily phone call Friday talking about them, and she ended our discussion by exclaiming “Cathy, you should find out why so many smart people wear glasses. Is there a reason for it or is it just a stereotype that nerds always wear glasses? You should write about this on your blog.” I didn’t have high hopes when I started looking into this, but actually, there are a lot of scientific papers looking into this topic. Is there anything to the stereotype of nerds wearing glasses and if so, why?
One of the more recent studies exploring this topic was from the Gutenberg Health Study out of Germany. Started in 2007, they are studying cardiovascular diseases, cancer, eye diseases, metabolic diseases, diseases of the immune system and mental diseases in over 15,000 German subjects. They want to understand how genetics and the environment contribute to these diseases. From looking at 4,800 of these subjects between the ages of 35 and 74, they found that nearsightedness correlated with the amount of time spent in school: 53% of college graduates were nearsighted versus only 24% of people who’d dropped out of high school. This result was mirrored in a study in the United Kingdom studying over 100,000 subjects: 27% of the people they studied has nearsightedness and it was more common amongst those with higher education. Same results from a study looking at people throughout Europe. So there is actual scientific evidence that people with more education are more likely to wear glasses.
Does this mean that nearsightedness makes you smarter? Or does a person develop nearsightedness because they are studying? Or is it genetic? Let’s start with the last option first. The Gutenberg study looked at 45 genetic markers and found that they were only weakly associated with nearsightedness. So there likely is a genetic component but it’s not well understood. What has been shown more conclusively is that lack of light is highly correlated with nearsightedness. In other words – more time indoors, the more likely that you’ll need glasses. Studies have looked at whether adding more light to classrooms decreases nearsightedness, and in fact it does! (see this study in China and this one from Australia). Lack of light may actually cause a person to have to wear glasses!
But why would the lack of outdoor light cause nearsightedness? One option may be that it’s because kids are inside looking at screens or reading. This could then stress the eyes or affect proper eye development. One study did find that the more time spent doing “close work” like reading or writing correlates with the need for glasses. In this same study, they didn’t find any correlation with being indoors and staring at the TV or iPad and nearsightedness – so it’s not the screen time, it’s the studying!
Another study looked at Vitamin D levels (Vitamin D is created by interaction of ultraviolet B and other chemicals in the skin) and found that people who were nearsighted were also more likely to have lower vitamin D levels. This is something you might expect if these folks also don’t go outside as often (because they’re too busy inside reading or doing homework???) But whether or not Vitamin D deficiency causes nearsightedness or if taking more Vitamin D could “cure” nearsightedness is another matter – and totally unknown.
So why do nerds wear glasses? Scientists can’t exactly say yet, but it’s likely a combination of genetic and environmental factors that are just beginning to be understood. Until then, you may want to look at the studies that are saying that it doesn’t matter if you are nearsighted or not or smart or not. You should still wear glasses because in a British study, over 40% of people perceive that people wearing glasses makes a person look smarter and more professional. I wonder now that I got LASIK if I should get myself a pair of fake glasses? Just in case I need to “look smart.”