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The more time you spend watching television in your 40s, 50s, and 60s, the higher your risk of cognitive decline and brain damage in later years, according to scientists who presented three new studies at the 2021 American Heart Association’s Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle, and Cardiometabolic Health Conference.
The researchers used TV watching as a measure of sedentary behavior (i.e., the amount of time spent sitting). They also analyzed the brain health of each participant by asking questions about their watching habits, performing brain MRI scans, and facilitating cognitive tests.
In addition, the researchers measured TV watching based on how much content the participants consumed during their free time:
- High (often or very often)
- Moderate (sometimes)
- Low TV watching (never or seldom)
How Too Much TV Affects the Brain
The results of the studies suggest that people who reported moderate or high amounts of TV exposure experienced greater cognitive decline and reduced gray matter in their brains later in life. Gray matter is associated with hearing, sight, muscle control, and decision-making. What’s more, even the positive impact of exercise couldn’t counter the negative effect of TV watching.
From the data collected, the study authors concluded that for every hour a person spends in front of a TV, the daily average viewing time was equal to a 0.5 percent reduction in gray matter volume.
Is TV Watching Really at Fault?
There is significant evidence proving connections between sedentary lifestyles and higher risks of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, lung cancer, colon cancer, and premature death.
Although the findings of this new research contribute to the links above, Dr. Heather Snyder, Vice President of scientific and medical relations at the Alzheimer’s Association, says people should consider the difference between association and causation.
Snyder noted that these findings add to similar research suggesting a correlation between TV watching and cognitive decline in seniorhood. However, they do not prove that watching TV is an actual cause of cognitive decline later in life.
Additional research is necessary to understand the link. “Is there something about watching too much TV?” or “does watching TV mean you are less active?” are questions Syndar raised.
The important takeaway from the research, comments Snyder, is to devote some of your time to being active, as activities that support your overall health may protect your brain in later years.
How to Prevent Cognitive Decline
Instead of picking up the remote and spend hours of your precious time on the couch, the American Heart Association recommends starting with these moderate aerobic activities:
- Brisk walking (at least 2.5 miles per hour)
- Dancing (ballroom or social)
- Water aerobics
- Tennis (doubles)
- Bike riding (slower than 10 miles per hour)
So, the next time you reach for the TV remote, consider your brain health 10 years from now and ask yourself, “is this the best and healthiest use of my time?”