With so much TV available to watch these days, it has become the go-to home entertainment that has many folks binge watching, sometimes hours at a time. But is it good for your brain?
New research from the United Kingdom shows that regularly watching over three hours of TV each day could lead to cognitive decline in language and memory down the line. The study was published late February in the journal Scientific Reports.
Researchers examined data from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging of 3,662 adults who were 50 years or older. Participants recorded how much TV they watched on a daily basis while their reasoning and thinking skills were also measured.
The study authors looked at baseline TV watching numbers from the years 2008 and 2009, and then looked at the cognition measures of memory and language six years later at 2014 and 2015.
They found that over the six-year period, people who watched 3.5 hours of TV each day experienced a greater decline in verbal memory — independent of other factors including socioeconomic status, overall physical health, and depression.
“Our analyses showed that while adults who watch less than 3.5 hours of television per day experience on average a decrease in verbal memory of around 4 to 5 percent over the following six years, those who watch television for more than 3.5 hours per day experience on average an 8 to 10 percent decrease in verbal memory over the same period,” said lead author Daisy Fancourt, PhD, a senior research fellow at University College London.
How can binge-watching TV cause issues?
Dr. Fancourt says it has to do with the rapid changes in images, sounds, and actions that your brain processes while you’re passively receiving information as opposed to actively interacting with it.
“Watching television has been shown in laboratory studies to lead to a more alert but less-focused brain. Some television viewing is stressful, and stress is also associated with impairments in cognition,” she said.
“Watching television for more than 3.5 hours per day may also take up time that could be spent on other cognitively beneficial activities, such as playing board games and reading.”
Tina Hoang, MPH, a research associate at University of California, San Francisco, said that a lot remains unknown about the long-term effects that binge-watching can have on the brain, and more studies are needed to determine the mechanisms in which it could increase the risk of cognitive decline.
“With binge-watching, as the authors note, it could be that TV watching is mostly a passive activity, but also that there’s extended time spent sitting and being physically inactive,” said Hoang, who was also the lead author on a 2015 JAMA Psychiatry study of how TV viewing impacts cognition in young adults.
“Understanding what about binge-watching affects brain health could help figure out how these behaviors need to be modified,” she added.
Research like this can be worrying for people, especially as the passive activity of watching TV becomes more a part of daily life.
Television viewing is no longer something done solely on TV sets in living rooms. It’s moved to computers, tablets, and the phones people carry with them all day long.
Hoang said this is a big shift in society that could have lasting effects.
“Given the rapid changes in screen-based behaviors over the last few decades, this is a really important issue,” she said.
She also pointed out that “we use screen-based tools like phones, tablets, and laptops for many different things, and there have been very few studies of cognitive decline that can really distinguish between the use of these tools and the types of activity people are engaging in.”
“A more nuanced investigation of these differences could help us make better decisions about temptations and managing screen time,” Hoang said.
What Action Steps Can you Take?
Hoang advised it may be helpful if you balance your TV watching with “more engaging activities” like playing a challenging game, attempting a puzzle, or learning a new skill in your downtime.
“And physical activity is good for your heart, and staying heart-healthy is another way to keep your brain in shape,” she said.
Fancourt echoed those thoughts, saying to combine passive TV time with “contrasting activities” that get you out of the house.
A better use of your time could be simply doing stimulating activities like crossword puzzles, creative arts activities, or simply reading a good book.
Binge-watching television programs could lead to cognitive decline down the line so if that matters to you, why not switch it up to activities that actually engage and encourage interaction?
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