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A Nation’s Eyeglasses helps determine its Wealth and Well-Being

Any airport newsstand or popular website confirms that we love lists. Best places to travel, 10 tips for flatter abs, and even lists of best lists. But while most rankings are frivolous, when it comes to listing serious topics like education, healthcare, economic stability and the like, people sit up and take notice in an attempt to divine which way their home is headed. One of the most eye-catching lists is the one that measures the wealth and well-being of nations around the world.

Well, academics working with the United Nations University wanted to get a good sense about wealth and well-being rankings, but just tracking a country’s gross domestic product wasn’t enough. To get a more accurate picture of how well-off people really are, they factored in a number of less-expected measurements ranging from birdsong in cities (an indicator of biodiversity) and children’s birth weight to washing machine availability and the number of teenage girls in school. But among those measurements was one that provided excellent insight into the quality of life for a nation’s citizens: the availability of eyeglasses.

At a U.N. backed symposium called “Beyond Gross Domestic Product — Transitioning into Sustainability” earlier this year, researchers said that some 700 million people around the world need corrective lenses but can’t get them, costing the international economy about $200 billion dollars a year because of that impact on human capital.

How exactly does a lack of glasses affect those who can’t get hold of them? Well, from the blackboard to the boardroom the effects are cumulative. Kids can’t see the lessons in school and adults can’t make the most of the prime years of earning potential if they simply can’t see what’s going on. The researchers said glasses can raise an individuals earning potential by 20 percent.

In fact, vision is a key health and well-being indicator for many groups, such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which looks at vision impairment as a key indicator in its annual report on the state of well-being for older Americans.

So why not just package up all the discount readers from the local drugstore and send them to the developing world (where 90 percent of those with uncorrected vision live)? For the same reason that it’s not enough to simply knock the bottom out of a glass Coke bottle, twist some wire around it and call it a day. The World Health Organization points out that a major cost associated with getting glasses to those who need them is finding and training practitioners who can both monitor eye health and prescribe accurate correction.

The effects of glasses, though, are well worth the investment. According to the Vision Impact Institute, the estimated loss of productivity in the world because of uncorrected visual defects amounts to 269 billion dollars per year.