Senior Health

11/5/2021 | By Seniors Guide Staff

If you’re retired, on disability, or otherwise have plenty of time on your hands, watching TV seems like a safe way to spend time. Unfortunately, TV watching harms your health – some shows, especially, and if you are engaged for long periods of time. In fact, television can negatively impact mental, emotional, and physical health. Streaming services and the binge-watching they encourage could be having some significant negative effects on many Americans, especially older adults and those in midlife.

TV watching harms your brain health

Televisions were once referred to as “boob tubes.” The slang nickname indicates that people already suspected a connection between time in front of the set and negative mental repercussions. Today, research supports the suspicion that TV watching harms your health and brain function.

The American Heart Association’s Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle & Cardiometabolic Health Conference 2021 presented results of studies of older TV viewers. Among other findings, researchers made a connection between TV viewing habits, cognitive function, and dementia risk.

Priya Palta, Ph.D., M.H.S., an assistant professor of medical sciences and epidemiology at New York City’s Columbia University, led a study of moderate to high TV viewers with an average age of 59 years. The study found that participants experienced a nearly 7% “greater decline in cognitive function over 15 years” compared to those who never or seldom watched TV.

The moderate to high TV viewers were also found to have lower volumes of deep gray matter over a decade later in life. Gray matter is the brain tissue that directs your muscles, some of your senses, and your decision-making ability. Loss of it is a sign of brain atrophy or deterioration, according to the study. Surprisingly, the study did not find that those who watched more TV were at greater risk of dementia.

Another study found a relationship between prolonged time watching television (and other sedentary activities) and cognitive control. It revealed that participants ended up hurting their attention span while making themselves much more vulnerable to distraction.

TV watching harms your physical health

Seniors who spend long hours watching TV risk weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes, along with shoulder and back issues. Even more worrisome, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates an association between sedentary behavior, as in excessive TV watching, and cancer mortality in middle-aged and older adults in the U.S.

Besides these hidden risks, seniors who watch a lot of TV are more likely to develop mobility issues. A study by the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health tracked more than 550,000 men and women between the ages of 50 and 71. After 10 years, participants who watched TV for five or more hours daily were 65 percent more likely to have problems with walking compared with those who watched TV for less than two hours daily.

But the physical ramifications of too much TV are not the only aspect to be concerned about. You could also be increasing your risk of mental health issues.

Binge-watching negatively affects mental health

In the past, television viewers watched their favorite shows each week on the same day. With the advent of streaming platforms like Hulu, Netflix, and Prime Video, people can watch an entire season – or multiple seasons – over a few days. It’s called binge-watching, and it has become quite popular.

Is there any reason not to binge-watch an entertaining show in one or two sittings? After all, some viewers in the 18-34 age group have given the activity positive reviews, claiming it allows them to participate in social media conversations with their virtual friends, which created a “sense of belongingness.”

But there is a darker psychological side to watching too much TV. Those struggling with substance abuse are typically dealing with at least one other mental health challenge, and a recent study indicated positive associations between excessive TV-watching and depression, social interaction anxiety, and loneliness. Other studies have found that the effects of too much TV include increased fatigue, mood disturbances, and insomnia.

Some TV shows cause emotional fallout

The entertainment industry works on the theory that people enjoy being upset and shocked by programs. As a result, much of what people watch can be distressing, causing them to feel uncomfortable. Not only that, but anyone already dealing with mental health issues could end up feeling more stressed and out of control.

Consider the crime, violence, sex, and drug abuse on many TV shows as well as the anger, stress, and fear that spring from watching some news shows.

Know the signs that your shows are hurting your mental health

While not all TV watching harms your health, be aware that some of your favorite shows could be hurting you mentally. Beware of the following signs:

  • You feel the symptoms of loneliness and isolation more acutely.
  • The show makes you feel bad about yourself.
  • A program is keeping you from a healthy self-care routine.
  • A violent or emotional show triggers past trauma.

Finding healthy alternatives

To counter the risk that TV watching compromises your health:

  • Limit the time you spend in front of the TV. Find alternative activities, such as learning a new hobby, joining a book club, playing board games and card games, or writing letters to military servicemembers. Not only are you doing no harm, you could be training your brain!
  • When you do watch TV, use a treadmill or do chair exercises while watching.
  • Limit the stressful content. Find more constructive shows to engage with. Instead of stressful drama series, choose nature documentaries and instructional videos. Instead of confrontational political talk shows, find balanced news coverage that doesn’t play on viewers’ emotions.

Like many advances in technology, the television can work for good or evil. Take steps to make sure it’s only beneficial for you.

Seniors Guide Staff

Seniors Guide has been addressing traditional topics and upcoming trends in the senior living industry since 1999. We strive to educate seniors and their loved ones in an approachable manner, and aim to provide them with the right information to make the best decisions possible.

Seniors Guide Staff