Not that we need another reason to covet iPads, but the tablets may provide a new way to help patients with eye diseases.
Researchers at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School report at the American Academy of Ophthalmology annual meeting in Chicago that digital tablets like iPads and Kindles improved reading speeds in patients with low vision.
Conditions such as macular degeneration and vision problems due to diabetes can damage light-sensitive cells in the eye’s retina, which in turn compromises central vision. The retina, located in the back of the eye, processes light and images into nerve signals that are sent to the brain. Damage to the retina, and in particular to the macular, or central portion, makes it difficult to decipher details and distinguish words on a page, and in most cases, ophthalmologists suggested that these patients use reading aids like expensive and bulky magnifiers with attached lights to ease reading tasks.
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But in the new study, 100 participants each read a chapter from a book in three formats: in its traditional printed form, on an iPad and on a Kindle. On the iPad and Kindle, the participants read the chapter twice; once at 12 point font, and another time using 18 point font. When using the iPad, participants increased their reading speed by 42 words-per-minute (WPM) on the 18-point font setting, compared to reading the printed book. On the Kindle, the participants increased their speed by 12 WPM. Overall, people with modest vision loss improved their speed by 15 words-per-minute on average.
The researchers believe it’s the back-lit screens on the tables that are responsible for the reading improvements, since they provide greater contrast and allow the words to appear crisper. People with poor vision often struggle with distinguishing objects or words from their backgrounds. Although the original Kindle used in study did not have a back-lit screen (current models do), even its word and background contrast most likely made it easier for patients to distinguish the tablet’s words better than those off of a book.
“Every image you look at in the world has light rays that they come into the eyes. For a patient with a compromised macula, they will have a hard time discerning images and letters. When all the light is coming right from those letters in a tablet, it’s right where it needs to be to be most easily seen by a comprised macula,” says lead study author Dr. Daniel Roth, an associate clinical professor at Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine.
Not surprisingly, the extent of the patients’ vision loss influenced which reading method they preferred. Those with the worst vision reported greatest success with the iPad while participants with better vision liked reading print the best.
Still, tablets may be too unfamiliar to the mostly elderly patients affected by low-vision conditions such as macular degeneration, for them to take advantage of them. “If a family member can walk them through it, it could help,” says Roth. He and his colleagues hope that the study opens up new ways for those with vision impairment to enjoy reading, and, he says, “improve [their] lives. If we can give advice that will enhance their ability to read with the iPad, it will allow them to be involved in the world in a way that was difficult before.”