Apr 11, 2023

Does watching television put you at risk of dementia?

11_4_23 dementia and TV HC

Television viewing and increased risk of cognitive decline have been paired together for years. While other forms of digital entertainment may be overtaking television consumption generally, many older Australians watch an average of 3 hours a day.

As younger generations become more occupied by social media and online streaming services, free-to-air TV is still the top form of entertainment for older people.

Researchers have been looking at the link between frequent television viewing and cognitive decline in older people – but the science is somewhat inconclusive.

A 2019 study suggests watching television for more than 3.5 hours a day may be associated with older people experiencing a decline in remembering words and language.

So does TV cause your cognition to decline?

We know that physical and social activities can reduce your risk of cognitive impairment and dementia, but sitting stationary isn’t always the culprit for cognitive decline. 

If you spend a lot of time sitting, your risk of cognitive impairment and dementia will be higher than someone who spends less time sitting, but it depends on how stimulated your brain is while you are sedentary. 

Harvard Medical School neurology lecturer and contributor, Andrew E. Budson, MD, analysed another UK-based study in an editorial piece. He suggested both driving and television were linked to worse cognitive function but that intentional computer use was actually associated with better cognitive function at baseline, and a lower likelihood of cognitive decline over the five-year study.

“If you watch more than one hour of TV daily, my recommendation is to turn it off and do activities that we know are good for your brain,” he wrote.

“Try physical exercise, using the computer, doing crossword puzzles, dancing and listening to music, and participating in social and other cognitively stimulating activities.”

Last year, researchers approached the older people in the study sample with another question: Would time spent watching television versus using a computer result in different risks of dementia?

All participants had not been diagnosed with dementia prior to the study but after it, the researchers found that those who watched more than four hours were 24% more likely to develop dementia and those who used computers interactively for more than one hour daily as a leisure activity were 15% less likely to develop dementia.

Doctor Budson mentioned the limitations of these studies in his editorial piece, stating that it is possible that people who were beginning to develop dementia started to watch television more and use the computer less. 

“The only way to know for sure would be to randomly assign people to watch specific numbers of hours of television each day while keeping the amount of exercise everyone did the same. That study is unlikely to happen,” he explained. 

Dementia expert, Professor Henry Brodaty, told the Australian Financial Review that these findings were intriguing but that the mechanism is not clear.

“It is a very well conducted analysis and well written paper published in a top journal… However, this does not completely exclude this possibility as the build-up of pathology to diagnosed dementia can be many more years than that,” he said.

“A further confounder, which they acknowledge, is that it may not be the television watching but that the non-watchers may be engaging in more cognitive activities.”

What do you think? Is television contributing to our cognitive decline? Let us know in the comments below. 

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  1. My Dad is 93 and TV is his life. He would spend at least 6 hours daily watching TV. His mind is sharp and his cognitive ability is very good for his age. He was an active person all his life; enjoyed a social drink and being around people. Loves Quiz shows; played cards and scrabble. This has not changed
    My Mum is 90 and spent her life doing jigsaw puzzles; crosswords; scrabble and enjoyed every TV quiz show answering at least 90% of the question right. Played cards; gardening and never had a drink in her life.
    Both were fit and active. Both went to Trivia nights and often won the night.
    Mum has dementia and is in residential care and needs high level care
    Dad is in independent living going very well
    My conclusion is that nothing really makes a difference and theories about what to do and not to do have no bearing at all. My Mum and Dad are examples of Dad doing everything you shouldn’t in his life and Mum doing every thing she should and look where it all ended up.

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