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Are e-books good for your eyes?

by Marika Sboros, 13 June 2013, 08:24
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DO YOU think it’s better for your eyes to read a digital book or the old-fashioned type, printed with ink on paper?

It took me ages to warm to my Kindle (I have technophobic tendencies and an iPad still seems adventurous). What sold me was the convenience when travelling abroad. It made so much sense to lighten my load by no longer lugging books in my luggage (the excessive alliteration is unintentional).

However, a Kindle still doesn’t quite do it for me when reading in bed. I prefer cuddling up with what feels like the real thing: a book with backbone, one that I can hold, with pages I physically have to turn.

So I was intrigued to receive an email from an American proponent of “natural vision improvement” (a topic that warrants discussion on its own, and for another time), asking whether digital or printed books are better for your vision.

The answer: if your vision is good to start with, medical science won’t prescribe one way or the other. It’s a matter of personal preference.

It’s another story altogether if you have low vision to start with, or serious eye diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy, that damage your central vision.

And digital books are proving helpful for elderly readers. A German study reported in the Public Library of Science One journal in February 2013 shows that elderly people find reading easier when using backlit electronic devices, thanks to increased contrast between the text and the background.

The researchers also say their findings don’t support the idea that digital reading devices are more tiring on the eyes.

And when it comes to people who have eye diseases that damage central vision, a US study last year shows they regain the ability to read quickly and comfortably by using digital reading devices.

The study, by scientists from the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, shows that people with moderate vision loss could increase their reading speed by 15 words per minute on average. A tablet with a lit screen led to the fastest reading speeds for all study participants, no matter their level of visual acuity, the researchers say.

The key is the iPad’s backlit screen, the researchers say, as it produces contrast sensitivity — being able see an object as separate and distinct from its background and to discern shades of gray. That’s particularly helpful as loss of contrast sensitivity is common in people with low vision. The original Kindle used in this study does not have a backlit screen and is easier to read outdoors.

The study’s lead author, Dr Daniel Roth, an associate clinical professor at the medical school, puts it in perspective: “Reading is a simple pleasure that we often take for granted until vision loss makes it difficult.”

At relatively low cost, digital tablets “can improve the lives of people with vision loss and help them reconnect with the larger world”.

No argument there about the benefits of e-books.

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