Step away from the screen.
The bad news: New research finds that working at a computer — or on a smartphone or tablet — is actually terrible for your eyes. Extended bouts of screen time cause changes in the tear fluid that keeps your eyes moist, making it more chemically similar to the tear fluid of people with dry eye disease. The study appeared this month in JAMA Ophthalmology.
When we stare at computers, we blink less than when we would while reading a book or doing another task, according to study author Yuichi Uchino, an ophthalmologist at the School of Medicine at Keio University in Tokyo. We also open our eyelids wider. All that exposed eye leads to more tear evaporation and dried-out peepers.
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Study subjects who spent the majority of their day in front of a computer had markedly reduced levels of a protein involved in keeping the eye moist. That protein, secreted by cells in the upper eyelid, helps make up the protective layer of film, or tears, that seals our eyes with moisture. This is the first study to link the protein with dry eye disease and screen time, despite the fact that computer use has been known to affect vision for years.
The details: The researchers analyzed the tears from both eyes of 96 Japanese office workers, about two-thirds of them men, and measured how much of the total protein content of the tears was the critical moistening protein they identified. The longer people spent in front of a computer screen, the researchers found, the less protein was present in their eyes and the drier their eyes.
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Why it matters: An estimated 5 million Americans, most of them over 50, suffer from dry eye, a chronic condition in which sufferers don't produce enough tears to lubricate and nourish their eyes. People with dry eyes can feel like their eyes are irritated, gritty, scratchy or burning. Some experience blurred or even permanently impaired vision.
The good news: People can reduce their risk for dry eye with a few simple changes, such as placing computers at a lower height with the screen tilted upward (to decrease how wide you spread your eyes), using artificial tears and remembering to blink.