There are a lot of health problems—including eye conditions—hiding within your genetic make up that you can pass on to your children. The good news is now there’s something you can do about it! Know what they are and how to handle them.
When it comes to hereditary health problems, including vision problems, you either have it or you don’t. According to a study titled “Genes and Environment in Refractive Error: The Twin Eye Study” conducted by researchers from the Preventive Ophthalmology of the Institute of Ophthalmology in London, common eye problems like “astigmatism are dominantly inherited.”
These findings compel parents to study their family history of vision problems and start exploring new treatments even before common eye problems manifest in their children.
Unlike our predecessors who had to live with their inherited eye conditions throughout their lives, we now live in a world of technological advancements. So while genetics would ultimately dictate the chances of parents and kids inheriting vision problems, now you can do something about them, save your kids from them, and let your kids live normal fulfilling lives.
Here are six of the most common eye problems parents can unknowingly pass on to their children—and new treatments to explore when that happens.
1. Myopia or Nearsightedness
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “globally, uncorrected refractive errors (like myopia) is the main cause of moderate and severe visual impairment.” Myopia, a condition in which people only see objects close by clearly and those farther appear blurred, is an easily diagnosed, measured, and corrected but often overlooked eye condition. Because of this, “153 million people are visually impaired from uncorrected refractive errors (URE) [like myopia], of whom 8 million are blind,” according to Serge Resnikoff, Donatella Pascolini, Silvio Mariotti, and Gopal Pokharel in a paper for WHO.
Various researches have proven that there is a genetic culprit in the development of myopia or nearsightedness. According to the American Optometric Association, “there is significant evidence that many people inherit myopia, or at least the tendency to develop myopia. If one or both parents are nearsighted, there is an increased chance their children will be nearsighted.”
Myopia affects nearly 30 percent of the U.S. population, and it usually manifests in school-age children and continues to worsen until around age 20. If the eye condition runs in the family, it’s best to have an ophthalmologist check your child’s eyes as early as possible so you can start exploring treatment options. (Check out our guide to nearsightedness.)
Myopia Treatment Options:
Traditionally, people diagnosed with myopia can opt to wear eyeglasses or contact lenses to help the eyes see clearly. Another treatment option to prevent myopia from worsening, according to the AOA, is orthokeratology (VIT), also known as corneal refractive therapy (CRT). “In this nonsurgical procedure, you wear a series of specially designed rigid contact lenses to gradually reshape the curvature of your cornea, the front outer surface of the eye. The lenses place pressure on the cornea to flatten it.” The child wears the lenses for certain periods, say at night time, and then removes it.
According to the Glaucoma Research Foundation, this eye condition is characterized by irreversible damage to the optic nerves leading to vision loss and, if left untreated, blindness. “Genetic factors are considered to play a major role in all major forms of glaucoma.”
Among the types of glaucoma that may be inherited by young children include “congenital, infantile, and juvenile glaucoma as well as those associated with abnormalities in the structure of the eye,” says Dr. Jennifer Sutherland and Dr. Alex Levin in a paper for The Pediatric Glaucoma & Cataract Family Association (PGCFA). It may be inherited from a family member, but it is also possible for a child to be the first in the family to develop this if the parents are carriers of the glaucoma gene.
Early detection, regular check up, and completion of all tests are crucial to fight the worsening of this eye condition.
The PGCFA lists three surgical procedures for children that are not often used in adults (since some medications work better on adults and some work better on children) including goniotomy, the least invasive form of treatment for glaucoma that it is done in children under two years of age; trabeculotomy, a surgical procedure that helps reduce pressure in the eye caused by glaucoma; and combination trabeculotomy-trabeculotomy, which is a combined surgical approach for certain types of glaucoma. Talk to your eye doctor and schedule an eye exam for your child as soon as possible if you have a history of glaucoma in the family.
3. Strabismus (Misaligned or Crossed Eyes)
The American Academy of Optalmology (AAO) defines strabismus as a visual problem in which the eyes are not aligned properly and point in different directions. “One eye may look straight ahead, while the other eye turns inward, outward, upward, or downward.”
Four percent of children in the US suffer from this eye condition. Having a family history of strabismus puts your children at risk of developing this vision problem in the future. The AAO recommends bringing children 3 and 3 ½ years old in for assessment for strabismus, as it is diagnosed during an eye exam.
Some cases would only require the child to wear a pair of glasses to realign the eyes. Other treatments involve surgical procedures that aim to correct the unbalanced eye muscles. In some cases a child will have to go through more than one surgery.
4. Retinal Detachment
Our retina is the light-sensitive layer of tissue that lines the back of our eyes and sends visual messages through the optic nerves to the brain. “When the retina detaches, it is lifted or pulled from its normal position. If not promptly treated, retinal detachment can cause permanent vision loss,” according to the National Eye Institute (NIH).
One of the biggest risk factors is having a family history of retinal detachment along with eye injury and extreme nearsightedness. A cataract surgery can also lead to detached retina. (Click here to learn more about Retinal Detachment.) Symptoms include seeing “floaters” or small dots/specks moving with your vision, and seeing light flashes in the eyes. It is important to note that retinal detachment is a medical emergency and needs immediate attention. If you have a family history of retinal detachment, you must orient your child on the symptoms and remind him to alert you as soon as he experiences these signs.
Retinal detachment is treated through surgery, which involves the use of laser that “welds” the retina back into place. Another treatment that can be considered is cryopexy or freeze treatment. The latter uses what’s called a cryoprobe to freeze and seal the retina.
5. Color Vision Problems (Color Blindness)
This refers to a group of eye conditions that affect the way a person perceives colors. It is “a common hereditary (inherited) condition which means it is usually passed down from your parents,” according to colorblindawareness.org. The most common hereditary type is the red-green color blindness. People suffering from this eye condition have a problem distinguishing some shades of red, green, or even yellow.
According to the National Eye Institute, “as many as 8 percent of men and 0.5 percent of women with Northern European ancestry have the common form of red-green color blindness.” And boys are much more likely to be color blind than women. Eye doctors make use of various tests to diagnose color blindness, like the Ishihara Color Test, which is the most well-known color vision test. This involves the use of 38 pseudoisochromatic plates with numbers or some lines that the patient would need to read or decipher.
Unfortunately there is no cure for color blindness. However, there are special types of lenses that can help people with this eye condition perceive colors more accurately. There are also visual aids and even apps for mobile devices that help in distinguishing colors.
This is a vision problem that is caused by a defect in the shape of the cornea or lens. Unlike nearsightedness or farsightedness, astigmatism causes blurred or fuzzy vision at all distances. This makes it extremely difficult to perform a myriad of tasks—from reading to driving and watching television. It can even have long-term effects in a person’s relationships and how one perceives the world around him, as it makes it difficult to perform basic social interactions such as recognizing people’s faces in a crowd, joining activities meant to let a person interact, etc. A child with astigmatism (especially those unaware of his situation) may seem detached and uninterested to interact. Astigmatism also often causes bouts of headache and migraines, which can affect the child’s daily activities.
Some of the warning signs of astigmatism to watch for in your children include squinting, difficulty seeing at night, eyestrain, headaches, and eye irritation. To have your child checked for astigmatism, request a comprehensive eye examination from your eye doctor.
Mild cases of astigmatism may be treated through the use of corrective lenses (eye glasses or contact lenses) that a doctor would ask patients to wear for a period of time. Others may recommend orthokerathology (Vision Improvement Therapy (VIT)), which makes use of rigid contact lenses to correct the damage. People with severe cases sometimes undergo refractive surgery to fix the shape of the cornea.
It is best to study your family history and trace the eye conditions and health problems that could be in your genes. Keep a record of common eye problems that may have afflicted members of your side of the family and that of your spouse’s. Check for vision problems that could run in both sides of the family and could most likely be passed on to your children. Studying these eye conditions and getting your children checked and diagnosed as early as possible will help you and your family discuss or explore treatment options. Early detection and cure could mean saving your child’s vision for the rest of his life.