Television has always been a hypnotic diversion, and the rise of streaming content has made passing hours in front of the set easier than ever. But all of that tube time might have consequences later in life. According to new research published in Scientific Reports, the more TV older adults watched, the greater the potential for lower scores on verbal memory tests.
The data was drawn from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, a long-term examination of UK participants aged 50 and older that solicits information on health and lifestyle habits. The study, conducted by researchers at University College London, looked at the self-reported television viewing habits of 3590 adults in 2008 and 2009. These subjects also took a brief verbal memory test that prompted them to recall 10 common words that had just been recited to them. They were asked to repeat the words both immediately and after a brief delay. Semantic fluency was also tested, with subjects asked to offer words in a given subject, like animals, in under a minute.
The process was then repeated six years later. Participants who watched more than 3.5 hours of television daily had worse scores on the verbal memory test than those who watched less. Researchers also found that as television viewing went up, scores went down. This, the study suggests, is enough to link TV watching with cognitive decline.
Because sedentary behavior by itself was not found to correlate with the lowered memory scores, it may not be the physical passivity of viewing that’s at fault. The paper’s authors note that television promotes an alert brain, but not necessarily a focused one. Other screen-based stimuli like video games may be better for preserving or enhancing cognition. Researchers also theorized the potential for TV-induced stress to affect recall. Violent scenes can induce concern or worry on the part of the viewer, which can in turn prompt a release of glucocorticoids, or stress hormones. Chronically high levels of glucocorticoids can result in memory impairment, among other issues.
It may also be that television itself isn’t damaging, but that it simply takes away time that could be spent on more neurologically nourishing activities like games, puzzles, or reading. It’s also possible that adults facing cognitive issues are more likely to spend their time with a remote in hand. What’s not debatable is that watching television is largely an idle activity for the brain—something to think about the next time you binge.
[h/t Science News]