Older people who want to preserve their faculties may consider rationing their television time. A large new study of older adults found that those who spent at least 3.5 hours per day watching television experienced a greater decline in verbal memory.
Older adults who watch a lot of television may have poor memory
Researchers at University College London in the United Kingdom analyzed data from the Longitudinal Study of Aging in English (ELSA) on 3,662 adults aged 50 and over.
At this time, they also completed verbal memory and fluency tests. The analysis revealed that those who watched television for 3.5 hours or more per day had an average 8 to 10 percent decline in memory related to words and language over the 6 years the study covered.
This compares with an average decrease of 4 to 5 percent in those who watched fewer hours of TV per day during the same period.
The study, now appearing in the journal Scientific Reports, found no such links between television viewing time and differences in "semantic fluency."
In the verbal memory tests they asked participants to memorize and then recall lists of words within a specified time, while the semantic fluency tests asked them to list as many examples of a category (such as a type of animal) that they could think of within a given time.
The study authors note that while much research has been done on the effects of television viewing on cognition, most of it has focused on children.
“Much less attention,” has been paid to the purposes of watching television at the other end of life, to although it has been a hypothesis for more than 25 years that excessive television viewing could contribute to the development of dementia”.
Watching TV is a 'passive activity'
An interesting point about the new study is the fact that the link between extensive television viewing and the greater decline in verbal memory held even after the researchers adjusted the results for how long people spent sitting.
In considering the possible reasons for their findings, they discuss the nature of watching television compared to other sedentary activities.
“Television”, the study authors explain, “has been described as a unique cultural activity because it combines, on the one hand, dense, fragmentary, strong and rapidly changing sensory stimuli, with the passivity of the viewer on the other”.
Many studies that have linked sedentary time to cognitive decline in older adults have not considered this unique "alert-passive" nature of television viewing, but have treated it as a "representation of sedentary behavior."
The authors make comparisons with research on other sedentary screen-based behaviors that have not linked them to cognitive decline.
Some studies, for example, have suggested that Internet use and video games, both sedentary activities that involve screen use, may even preserve, if not enhance, cognitive skills, such as those needed to solve problems.
Watching TV and 'cognitive stress'
The researchers suggest that watching television could affect verbal memory through "cognitive stress."
They argue that such stress could arise from the alert-passive nature of television, along with the psychological effects of witnessing violent, suspenseful and graphic scenes.
Another explanation for the study's findings could be that the more time people spend watching television, the fewer opportunities they have to participate in "cognitively beneficial activities," such as reading, playing board games and cultural activities.
This could imply that the potentially negative impact of watching television is not only the result of its direct effects, but also because it displaces activities that preserve cognitive ability, although they can also be sedentary.
However, the study authors ask to note that this remains to be explored further in future studies.
The study does not deny the benefits of television
Finally, the researchers note that their findings do not suggest that watching television in old age is of no benefit. There is evidence, for example, that adults who watch dramas rather than documentaries perform better on tests indicating a greater ability to understand others.
Some studies have also revealed that when "properly designed" educational television programs are efficient vehicles for learning.
Television also offers a means of escaping life in difficult times, and many people consider it a form of relaxation.
The British Heart Foundation funded this research. It's important to remember that cognitive decline is not the same as dementia.
But if you are concerned that the amount of television you are watching could have a negative impact on your health, we recommend that you limit the amount of television you watch each day and that you work on some healthy hobbies for your routine.
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