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Experts say excessive TV watching in middle age can reduce cognitive function in later years. RG Studio/Getty Images
  • Researchers say people who watch more television in middle age have a higher risk of declining brain health in later years.
  • Their studies indicate that excessive TV watching can cause cognitive decline and a reduction in gray matter.
  • Experts recommend that you select an activity to replace TV watching that you enjoy and will stick with.

The more television you watch in your 40s, 50s, and 60s, the greater your risk of brain health issues in later years.

That’s according to researchers who presented three new studies at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health Conference 2021 last week.

The studies used TV watching as a measure of sedentary behavior (i.e., time spent sitting). Brain health was later measured by participants answering questions about their watching habits, completing cognitive tests, and undergoing brain MRI scans.

TV watching was measured by how much content was consumed during leisure time:

  • Low TV watching (never or seldom)
  • Moderate (sometimes)
  • High (often/very often)

Together, the researchers’ findings suggest that people who self-report moderate or excessive (high) amounts of TV watching experience greater cognitive decline and reduced gray matter in their brains later in life. Gray matter is involved in decision-making, hearing and vision, and muscle control.

The researchers also found that the positive impact of physical activity wasn’t necessarily enough to combat or counter the negative impact of TV watching. This doesn’t mean we should give up exercising, though.

From their data, they calculated that each 1-hour increase in a person’s daily average TV viewing time was tied to a 0.5 percent reduction in gray-matter volume.

The American Heart Association states on its website that science has linked being inactive and sitting too much with higher risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, colon and lung cancers, and early death.

While this new research adds to that link, Heather Snyder, PhD, the Alzheimer’s Association vice president of medical and scientific relations, suggests we should keep in mind the difference between association and causation.

“This work adds to similar research suggesting an association between watching television and cognitive decline later in life but does not prove causation,” Snyder told Healthline.

“More research is needed to understand this link,” she added. “For instance, is there something about watching TV or does watching more TV mean you are less active?”

The most important thing to take away from the research, says Snyder, is to consider what else you can do besides watching television.

Choose activities that we know are good for heart, brain, and body health, she recommends.

“A growing body of research suggests engaging in more frequent exercise (if you are able), eating a balanced diet, and being socially and cognitively engaged may reduce risk of cognitive decline,” she said.

In other words, activities that support your holistic health today may be the key to protecting your brain health in later years.

When it comes to modifying your lifestyle, it is ultimately your choice how to proceed to get the best results. You know what you will stick with and what you will not.

Synder offers this advice: “Instead of picking up the remote, pick up an interesting book or go for a walk.”

However, personal context is important, too. This means if you are not a book reader, don’t decide you’re switching all TV hours to time spent reading novels. It’s not that it’s a bad idea. It just isn’t likely to lead to lasting change.

Instead, choose activities you will enjoy so you’re more likely to continue choosing them over TV time in the long term.

These can be moderate aerobic activities suggested by the AHA, including:

  • brisk walking (at least 2.5 miles per hour)
  • water aerobics
  • dancing (ballroom or social)
  • gardening
  • tennis (doubles)
  • biking slower than 10 miles per hour

They may also include more vigorous and intense activities suggested by the AHA such as:

  • hiking uphill or with a heavy backpack
  • running
  • swimming laps
  • aerobic dancing
  • heavy yard/garden work like continuous digging or hoeing
  • tennis (singles)
  • cycling 10 miles per hour or faster
  • jumping rope

You may also choose to do more sedentary activities that stimulate brain functioning, including things such as knitting, completing crosswords, or playing an instrument.

Whatever you do, the next time you reach for the remote, consider your brain health 20 years from now and ask yourself, is this the healthiest use of my time?