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Prevalence Rates and Epidemiological Risk Factors for Astigmatism in Singapore School Children


Articles: Original Article

Purpose. This study examined the prevalence rate of astigmatism and its epidemiological risk factors in Singapore school children.

Methods. In a study of school children aged 7 to 9 years old in two schools in Singapore in 1999, a detailed questionnaire was administered to parents regarding reading or close-work habits, past history of close-work, family history, and socioeconomic factors. Cycloplegic refraction was performed five times in each eye. Defining astigmatism as worse than or equal to 0.5, 0.75, and 1 D cylinder in the right eye, the prevalence of astigmatism was calculated.

Results. The study population consisted of 1028 children. The prevalence rate of astigmatism (worse than or equal to 1 D cylinder) was 19.2% (95% confidence interval, 16.8 to 21.6). This was not different between genders, ethnic groups, or age (p > 0.05). With-the-rule astigmatism was more common than against-the-rule astigmatism. The prevalence of astigmatism and myopia was 9.8% (95% confidence interval, 8.0 to 11.6). A high AC/A ratio was associated (p = 0.003) with astigmatism, even after exclusion of myopic children. On vectorial analysis, J0 and J45 were associated with the number of hours of playing video games, whereas J45 was also associated with computer use. Only J45 was associated to male gender, a high AC/A ratio, and a family history of myopia.

Conclusions. The prevalence rate of astigmatism (≥1 D) was 19%. Playing video games and computer use may be associated with astigmatism severity, although the presence of astigmatism (≥1 D) was not associated with any nearwork factors. A family history of myopia was associated with oblique astigmatism severity. A high AC/A ratio is associated with astigmatism, and this requires further investigation.

Singapore National Eye Centre (LT, DT), Department of Community, Occupational and Family Medicine, National University of Singapore (SMS), Singapore Eye Research Institute, Singapore (AC, WYC, DT), Defence Medical Research Institute, Singapore (HMW), Department of Ophthalmology, National University of Singapore (DT)

Received January 19, 2002;

revision received May 9, 2002.

Louis Tong

Singapore National Eye Centre

11 Third Hospital Avenue

Singapore 168751


Astigmatism as a refractive error has been investigated in many previous population studies. 1–7 Astigmatism is an important clinical and public health problem for a number reasons. First, uncorrected high astigmatism provides a challenge because of the high frequency of anisometropia and patients’ rejection of eyewear. 1 Second, unlike other refractive error states, a child with uncorrected astigmatism experiences blur on a continuous basis. 8 A myopic child has a clear retinal image when looking at a near environment, and a hyperopic child can achieve a clear retinal image through accommodation. 8 It is believed that an astigmatic child is therefore at increased risk for the development of refractive amblyopia. 9,10 Third, some researchers have suggested that optical blur imposed by astigmatism may predispose to myopia development. 11 One study 11 found an association of oblique astigmatism with higher degrees of myopia, although another study 12 showed with-the-rule astigmats having a slower myopic progression rate than subjects having no astigmatism or against-the-rule astigmatism. As far as we know, the relationship between myopia and astigmatism has not been evaluated definitively in Chinese children. If astigmatism has an effect on myopia development, then its prevalence rate is obviously important because a consequential high prevalence of myopia is not only an economic burden, 13,14 but high myopia may also lead to sight-threatening retinal complications. 14

Several epidemiological studies (Table 1) have documented the prevalence of astigmatism 2,3,4,7,13,15–20,22–27. However, a detailed risk factor evaluation for childhood astigmatism has not been done. Apart from the report on the association of astigmatism with Native American ancestry in Oklahoma 27–29 and a higher prevalence of astigmatism in Bangladeshi children relative to white children, 30 no other risk factors have been identified.

Table 1

Table 1

Previous reports have not been able to elicit the associated risk factors of astigmatism because of a small sample size or the confounding effect of myopia. Myopia and astigmatism often coexist, 13,31 and the effect of nearwork on myopia has been well described. 13,14,32,33 Because of the coexistence of these refractive conditions, a large sample size is required to study the possible association of physical, socioeconomic, and behavioral factors of astigmatism itself. Smaller studies have produced apparently contradictory findings, for example, the extremely high prevalence rate of astigmatism in special groups such as Chinese medical students 20 and a much lower prevalence rate of astigmatism up to 17 years of age in other Chinese students. 34 Without understanding of the associated risk factors of astigmatism, it would be difficult to account for these findings.

Some previous studies have highlighted the interest in the axis of astigmatism. In Hong Kong Chinese children, the type of astigmatism found was predominantly with-the-rule. 34 In contrast, against-the-rule astigmatism was relatively more common in American military personnel 21 and in American myopes. 31,35 The prevalence rates of each subtype of astigmatism in myopic Chinese children have not been reported. In addition, these studies have not used the vectorial analysis of astigmatism, and there are disadvantages attached to the use of mutually exclusive categories of cylinder axes. 36

Previous epidemiological studies had not reported the prevalence rates of the subtypes of astigmatism with similar or dissimilar axes in the right and left eyes. One study 7 reported that as a group, the right eyes had a greater prevalence rate of axes >90° and the left eyes had a higher prevalence rate of axes <90°. This suggests, but does not prove, that dissimilar axes in oblique astigmatism may be common. In another report, 5 the correlation between the magnitude of the total refractive astigmatic vector i2 between the right eyes and the left eyes was statistically significant (p < 0.05) with a negative correlation coefficient. This also suggests that astigmatism with dissimilar axes between the right and left eyes is not uncommon. To our knowledge, the symmetry of astigmatism axes has not been described in a predominantly Chinese population.

As the first step to understand the etiology and epidemiology of astigmatism, we report the prevalence rate of astigmatism, the lateral symmetry of astigmatism axes, as well as the associated risk factors of astigmatism in Singapore school children.

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The initial cross-sectional results of an ongoing longitudinal observational study that commenced in 1999, Singapore Cohort Study of the Risk Factors of Myopia (SCORM) 37, is reported here. All school children in grades I to II in a school in eastern Singapore and grades I to III in another school in northern Singapore were recruited for this study. Cases with established eye pathology or amblyopia detected before the commencement of the study or known allergy to eyedrops were excluded. The participation rate was 62%.

A total of 1028 school children (49.6% male) with a mean (±SD) age of 7.4 ± 0.5 years were recruited. The ethnic composition of this study population was composed of 70.2% Chinese, 18.9% Malay, and 5.3% Indian children. A total of 52.0% of the children were 7 years old, 31.8% of the children were 8 years old, and 16.1% of the children were 9 years old.

This study was approved by the ethics committee of the Singapore Eye Research Institute, and all procedures adhered to the Declaration of Helsinki. Informed written consent was obtained from the parents after the study was explained to them.

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Data Collection

A questionnaire on family history, socioeconomic factors, reading, and close-work habits was administered to the parents of all children in this study. The details of this questionnaire have been reported elsewhere. 37

After instillation of 0.5% proparacaine, cycloplegia was accomplished with three drops of topical 1% cyclopentolate in each eye, each drop at 5-min intervals. Cycloplegic measurements were performed 30 min after the last drop instillation. Autorefraction was performed using one of two Canon RK-5 autorefractors (Canon, Tochigiken, Japan). From the five refractive error readings, the magnitude of the mean refractive cylinder was ascertained by calculation using a previously reported power vector method involving Fourier transformation. 38 Cycloplegic autorefraction had been shown to be the most repeatable measurement in the context of a longitudinal study. 39

For practical reasons, we were unable to perform a definitive laboratory measurement of the AC/A ratio on the large sample size, thus a simple, quick, and relatively easy on-site screening method was used to increase the compliance of the subjects. The accommodative convergence to accommodation (AC/A) ratio was measured as described in a separate report. 40

Briefly, when the child was wearing the habitual distance correction, the Maddox Wing was placed in front of the distance correction. The child was then asked to look at the white arrow, and the position of the arrow was recorded (ΔN) after 5 to 10 s. The highest and lowest reading was recorded, and the mean was taken in cases where a range of movement of the arrow was noticed. The measurement was repeated with a +1.0 D lens in front of both eyes (Δ+1) and then with a −1.0 D lens in front of both eyes (Δ-1). The ratio was then calculated as (Δ+1 − ΔN) + (Δ−1 − ΔN) divided by +1 − (−1) D or 2 D. This ratio was classified as normal, high (>5 Δ/D), or low (<3 Δ/D).

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Data Analysis and Definitions

The Pearson’s correlation coefficient of the power of the right and left eye cylinder was high (r = 0.819). Because the results from the right and left eyes were similar, only the right eye’s results were presented.

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Definition of Astigmatism.

Astigmatism was defined as a cylinder magnitude of worse than or equal to 0.5, 0.75, and 1 D. The prevalence rates and 95% confidence intervals were reported. The prevalence rates of astigmatism in myopia, emmetropia, and hyperopia were also reported. This was followed by the prevalence rates of the astigmatism in terms of symmetry of axes in the right and left eyes. For obvious reasons, both eyes’ data were used in the analysis on the symmetry of the axes of astigmatism between the two eyes.

For risk factor analysis, astigmatism was defined as a cylinder of at least 1 D in magnitude. This definition has been adopted by some researchers. 2,18,22,23 For the purpose of studying associations of astigmatism, we feel it is logical to use this stricter definition of astigmatism, i.e., studying the more “severe” astigmats. In addition, one study 41 involving Chinese preschool children, albeit in a different setting, stated that the criterion for astigmatism should be set higher than 0.75 D (i.e., ≥1.0 D).

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Definition of Myopia.

Myopia in this study was defined as a spherical equivalent (sphere + 0.5 × cylinder) of at least −0.5 D. Although there is also no universally agreed definition of myopia, this definition has been used in previous studies. 7,42

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Definition of Severity of Astigmatism.

For severity of astigmatism, we used a vectorial method that we have described in detail in a separate report. 36 In this section, each eye does not belong exclusively to one type of astigmatism but comprises two coexisting astigmatism components. The components of astigmatism labeled as J0 (Cartesian astigmatism) and J45 (oblique astigmatism) were studied separately as continuous dependent variables.

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Other Definitions.

With-the-rule astigmatism is defined by a positive J0, and against-the-rule astigmatism is defined by a negative J0. An “A” type of astigmatism refers to a negative J45 in the right eye and a positive J45 in the left eye. A “V” type of astigmatism refers to a positive J45 in the right eye and a negative J45 in the left eye.

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Risk Factor and Association Analysis

Dependent Variables.

The study of epidemiological risk factors was divided into: 1. The risk factors for the presence of any astigmatism (as defined above), and: 2. The risk factors for the severity or magnitude of astigmatism (vectorial analysis).

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Independent Variables.

We performed multiple regression analyses using three groups of independent variables. The first group was designated as the socioeconomic factors, which comprised five variables: gender, ethnic group, type of housing, total family income, and father’s education level. The second group, which we called the physical or psychophysical factors, were age (in years), height (in centimeters), weight (in kilograms), and AC/A status (0 = normal, 1 = high). The third group, which we called behavioral or nearwork factors, comprised eight independent variables: the number of books read at the age of four, the age when reading commenced, the number of books read per week, the number of hours spent watching television a day, the number of hours playing video games (other than on the computer) per day, the number of hours spent on the computer a day, the number of hours of tuition outside school hours per week, and the family history of myopia (0 = absent, 1 = present). Tuition refers to supervised academic activity performed at reading distance.

Univariate analysis was performed using χ2 tests to identify any possible socioeconomic or behavior associations. Multiple logistic regression was then performed to examine the effect of various factors on the dependent variable (the presence or absence of astigmatism). For continuous dependent variables, e.g., J0 or J45, multiple regression was performed. In all the analyses, the level of statistical significance was set at p = 0.05.

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Prevalence Rates

Prevalence Rates of Astigmatism.

Fig. 1 shows the distribution of the cylinder of the eyes. This is heavily skewed because there is a preponderance of cases with a less minus cylinder magnitude. The median J0 and J45 were 0.20 D (range, −0.82 to +2.73) and 0.003 D (range, −0.70 to +1.26), respectively.



In the present study, myopia (defined as a spherical equivalent of −0.5 D) is a much more prevalent condition (32%; 95% confidence interval [CI], 29 to 35) than astigmatism. As shown in Table 2, the prevalence of astigmatism (worse than or equal to −1 D cylinder) was 19% (95% CI, 17 to 22).

Table 2

Table 2

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Prevalence Rates of Astigmatism in Various Spherical Refractive Error Categories.

The presence of myopia (defined above) was significantly associated with astigmatism (p < 0.001). The mean (±SD) spherical equivalent of the astigmats was −1.03 ± 2.09 D, whereas that of nonastigmats was −0.16 ± 1.42 D. The difference was statistically significant (p < 0.001).

Table 4 shows the subtypes of astigmatic eyes in terms of the spherical equivalent. Most cases of astigmatism were myopic as well. There was a significant association between increasing age and reduced prevalence of astigmatism for only the emmetropic astigmats (p = 0.001). In addition, there were significantly more male than female myopic astigmats (p = 0.014).

Table 4

Table 4

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Other Prevalence Rates.

A total of 85.2% (95% CI, 82.9 to 87.4) of children had with-the-rule astigmatism, whereas 14.7% (95% CI, 12.6 to 17.1) had against-the-rule astigmatism; 40.2% (95% CI, 37.2 to 43.2) had A-pattern symmetry, whereas 19.5% (95% CI, 17.1 to 22.1) had V-pattern symmetry; and 25.3% (95% CI 22.7 to 28.1) of the children had negative J45 in each eye, whereas only 9.94% (95% CI, 8.2 to 12.0) of the children had positive J45 in each eye.

Greater severity of with-the-rule astigmatism(J0) was associated with more severe myopia (more negative spherical equivalent). Although this is statistically significant (p < 0.01), there is a lot of scatter in this correlation (r = −0.194). Oblique astigmatism (magnitude of J45) was not correlated (r = −0.001, p = 0.98) to the severity of myopia (spherical equivalent).

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Risk Factors

Risk Factors for Presence of Any Astigmatism.

The prevalence of astigmatism (Table 1) was not different between genders, ethnic groups, or age (p > 0.05). Table 3 shows that housing, income, and father’s education level were not significantly related to astigmatic status (p > 0.05).

Table 3

Table 3

In terms of close-work activities, none of the factors were associated with astigmatism after accounting for myopia (p > 0.05). The mean number of books read per week was 2.7 ± 4.1 for children with astigmatism and 2.7 ± 2.3 for children without astigmatism. This was not significantly different (p = 0.20).

The presence of a high AC/A ratio was significantly (p < 0.001) associated with astigmatism. This analysis was repeated by selecting nonmyopic cases or cases with spherical equivalent above −0.5 D. There was again a statistically significant (p = 0.003) association between high AC/A ratio and astigmatism.

Analyzing the nonmyopic children (N = 692) using a linear regression model with the presence of astigmatism as the response variable, only the AC/A ratio remained in the model affecting the presence of astigmatism (p = 0.049). The type of astigmatism (emmetropic vs. hypermetropic) was not associated with AC/A ratio status (either high or not) using Fisher’s exact probability test (p = 0.14).

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Risk Factors for the Severity of Cartesian and Oblique Astigmatism.

There was no difference in the J0 between genders, ages, and ethnic groups. There was no difference in the J45 between ethnic group and ages. However, there was a greater oblique astigmatism component in boys compared with girls (p = 0.0035). The actual magnitude of the difference was small, with a mean difference of J45 being 0.028 D (95% CI, 0.007 to 0.049). Socioeconomic factors were not significantly (p > 0.05) associated with the severity of J0 or J45.

For the J0 component, none of the four physical factors contributed significantly. However, for the J45 or oblique astigmatism, the AC/A status was the only significant independent variable (p = 0.045).

The following factors in the regression models related to nearwork or behavior. For the J0 component, the only independent variable (of the eight evaluated) that was statistically significant was the number of hours spent playing video games per day (p = 0.029). The positive coefficient of this term in the model showed that playing television video games for longer hours a day was associated with more severe with-the-rule astigmatism. When the absolute value of J0 was used in the analysis (studying the severity of any Cartesian astigmatism), this relationship was no longer statistically significant.

For the J45 component, three of the independent variables were statistically significant: number of hours spent playing video games a day (p = 0.026), number of hours on the computer per day (p = 0.045), and family history of myopia (p = 0.010). When the analysis was repeated with the absolute value of J45 (ignoring the direction of the oblique astigmatism), only the number of hours on the computer (p = 0.029) was significant. The positive coefficient indicated that longer use of the computer was associated with a greater severity of oblique astigmatism.

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Astigmatism in Singapore school children appears less prevalent (Table 1) than in Singapore adults and Singapore teenagers (military personnel and medical students). The prevalence rates of astigmatism differ for children of other ethnic groups (Americans, Native Americans, and Swedish children), but are more prevalent than Asian Indian school children (Table 1). However, comparison of results between studies should be interpreted with caution because the definitions of astigmatism vary, methodologies differ, and the ages of the populations are not similar. A previous report showed an association of astigmatism with Native American ancestry in Oklahoma. 27 In another study (N = 71), Bangladeshi school entrants were found to have a greater incidence of astigmatism than their white counterparts. 30 In our study, we did not detect a difference in the prevalence rate of astigmatism between ethnic groups (Table 2).

We have also found that the prevalence rate of astigmatism is lower than that of myopia. This study supports previous studies 11,43–52 that have found an association between astigmatism and myopia. Our study finds a lack of association of any socioeconomic factors with astigmatism. Although astigmatism on the whole appears not to be associated with nearwork, it is intriguing that the severity of astigmatism using vectorial analysis (both J0 and J45) was associated with the number of hours spent playing video games. In addition, the oblique component of astigmatism (J45) was also associated with computer use. However, we cannot explain the exact mechanism of action.

We found that with-the-rule astigmatism is more common than against-the-rule astigmatism. More children had the A type of astigmatism than the V type of astigmatism. More children had negative J45 in each eye than positive J45 in each eye. The total number from the later two groups did not add up to the number of children with the A type of astigmatism. This seems to agree with previous studies using vector-based analysis. 5,7

This study also did not show any predisposition to a higher severity of myopia in cases with oblique astigmatism, unlike an earlier report. 11 The subjects of this previous study 11 were all myopic, which may explain the different result from the present study.

In a previous study by Grosvenor et al., 12 with-the-rule astigmatism was found to be associated with myopia progression compared with patients with no astigmatism. However, a further report 31 that also reanalyzed Grosvenor’s study showed no difference in the rate of myopia progression between subtypes of astigmatism. In our cross-sectional study, it is interesting that with-the-rule astigmatism was associated with the presence of myopia and more severe myopia compared with nonastigmats. With the availability of longitudinal data from further follow-up in our study, we should be able to better assess this association.

Our study reveals that a high AC/A ratio is associated with the presence of astigmatism in Singapore children. In addition, the oblique component of astigmatism (J45) was associated with a high AC/A ratio but not the Cartesian component (with or against-the-rule). This association cannot be easily explained and, as far as we are aware, has not been reported previously. It is interesting to note that a family history of myopia was associated with oblique (J45) and not Cartesian astigmatism (J0). It is tempting to suggest that a genetic factor may increase the predisposition to oblique astigmatism and an abnormal AC/A ratio.

The strength of the present study is its size and the inclusion of a thorough, carefully designed questionnaire and standardized refraction. Another strength of the study is the use of cycloplegia. Cycloplegic autorefraction has been shown to be more repeatable than noncycloplegic autorefraction or cycloplegic retinoscopy. 39 A limitation of this study is that it is not a randomly drawn sample from the population, and, hence, the subjects may not be representative of the population. Stimulus AC/A ratio is measured rather than response AC/A ratio. In addition, we did not use the distance heterophoria method of evaluation. We think this is justified in the presence of logistic constrains because we prefer to use a clinical measurement rather than one that is restricted to specialized research settings. Using our definitions, there is a possibility of some mixed astigmats being considered as myopes and not others. The refractive changes in mixed astigmats do not resemble the myopic astigmats. 53 In our study, only 25 children have mixed astigmatism and have also been classified as myopes using our definition.

High response AC/A ratio is known to be associated with myopia and may be predictive of myopia development. 40,54–57 Astigmats may be more likely to develop myopia than the nonastigmats. 11 It may be that the association between astigmatism and AC/A ratio may be spurious. The link between these factors may be the “potential to develop myopia” because both astigmatism and high AC/A ratio could predispose to myopia development. This can be addressed further when longitudinal results are available in our study, when we study the incident cases of myopia in those with astigmatism and different baseline AC/A ratios. In future reports, we will address the incidence of astigmatism and the risk factors of incident cases of astigmatism in the cohort study.

In summary, the prevalence rate of astigmatism (>1 D cylinder magnitude) is 19.2% (95% CI, 16.8 to 21.6). Astigmatism in this study population is associated with a high AC/A ratio. In emmetropic astigmats, the prevalence of astigmatism is reduced with age. The axis of astigmatism is primarily with-the-rule.

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Supported by Singapore Eye Research Grant SERI/MG/97-04/0005.

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astigmatism; cross-sectional study; epidemiology; myopia; risk factors

© 2002 American Academy of Optometry