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Down syndrome: the mysterious benefits of bifocal glasses

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Around 750 babies with Down syndrome are born each year in the UK.1 Many go on to have problems with their near vision, meaning they need glasses.2 Parents and teachers of some children have noticed they seem to do much better with bifocals than expected, and the children themselves say they prefer bifocals. Dr Maggie Woodhouse, of Cardiff University is investigating why. Her findings could help ensure children get the best glasses for them, so they can see the world as clearly as possible. Important knock-on effects could include better learning, improving children’s prospects in life.

Supported by generous grants from The Garfield Weston Foundation and the Tom and Sheila Springer Charity.


How are babies’ lives affected now?

Estimates suggest around 60,000 people have Down syndrome in the UK, 7 million worldwide.1,3 From an early age, vision problems are common.

“Many children with Down syndrome have vision problems,” says Dr Woodhouse. “The children also have a learning disability. If vision problems are not recognised and corrected, there’s a danger that people might think a child’s learning disability is more severe than it is. People might then have lower expectations of the child than they should have, meaning the child’s learning is unnecessarily affected.”

“Children with Down syndrome who struggle to focus on things nearby seem to do really well with bifocals,” continues Dr Woodhouse. “They see more clearly and do better school work. They also seem to get much better at exploring their world than we’d expect by simply improving their near vision and we don’t understand why.”

This lack of understanding could mean some children are missing out on the potential benefits of bifocals simply because they’re not being given them.

How could this research help?

“We hope to discover more about how bifocals improve the vision of children with Down syndrome and their ability to explore the world around them,” says Dr Woodhouse.

The researchers are studying how children scan a scene and pick out objects of interest – by looking for something in particular among many different words and pictures on the page of a book, for example. Parents of children with Down syndrome have said their children struggle with this type of activity and that bifocals seem to help.

“Our work could lead to better ways to predict which children will benefit from bifocals, along with new prescribing guidelines for specialists in eye clinics, who don’t all know how to prescribe bifocals for children,” adds Dr Woodhouse

“Better vision could improve both children’s learning and their quality of life – perhaps giving them a better chance of living independently, for example, or finding suitable employment when they grow up,” says Dr Woodhouse.


1. Down’s Syndrome Association. General FAQs. Website accessed 18 December 2014.

2. Stewart RE et al. In focus: the use of bifocal spectacles with children with Down's syndrome. Ophthalmic Physiol Opt 2005; 25(6): 514-22.

3. Down Syndrome International. Press Release: Down Syndrome International announces recipients of World Down Syndrome Day Awards - Down Syndrome International - 14 March 2014. Website accessed 18 December 2014.




Project LeaderDr J Margaret Woodhouse OBE PhD BSc FSMC
Project TeamProfessor Jonathan T Erichsen BA DPhilDr Julie-Anne Little PhD BSc MCOptom FHEAMs Cathy Williams PhD FRCOphthMr Patrick Watts MBBS MS FRCS FRCOphthProfessor Kathryn Saunders PhD BSc FCOptom FHEA
Project LocationSchool of Optometry & Vision Sciences, Cardiff University
Project Location OtherSchool of Biomedical Sciences, University of UlsterCentre for Child and Adolescent Health, School of Social and Community Medicine, University of BristolDepartment of Ophthalmology, University Hospital of Wales
Project duration3 years
Date awarded21 November 2014
Project start date1 July 2015
Project end date28 February 2019
Grant amount£169,053
Grant codeGN2338

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