As far as fear tactics go, this one might have struck a heart palpitation or five in yours truly. A long-term study recently published in JAMA Psychiatry pinpointed a disconcerting link between excessive television viewing and binge watching in your 20s to cognitive decline and deficiencies later in life. Even more frustrating, it turns out that annoying warning your parents always gave you about TV rotting your brain might actually hold scientific merit. Cue the “I told you so” responses.
This is pretty much disastrous news because there’s just so much damn good TV out there these days that we feel pressured to watch ‘em all. I mean, what could be so bad about spending half of a lazy, rainy Sunday marathoning “Orphan Black”? Turns out, a mushy brain.
Conducted by researchers over a 25 year span, where more than 3,000 Caucasian and African-American young adults between ages 18 and 30 answered questions about television viewing and exercise habits and were cognitively evaluated through a series of tests processing speed, executive function and verbal memory, those leading a more sedentary, screen-intensive lifestyle suffered more cognitive decline 25 years later. A lack of physical activity is known to contribute to cognitive decline, and the theory is that because watching a lot of television is a very inactive pastime, those who do so are more susceptible to cognitive deficiencies.
Around 10 percent of the participants reported watching three or more hours of television a day for two-thirds of their check-ins over the course of the longitudinal study. These individuals were much more likely to underperform on tests of cognitive function. Meanwhile, the 16 percent of participants that reported low physical activity also performed poorly on some of these tests. It should come as no surprise then that those who watched lots of TV and rarely exercised suffered the most drastic cognitive declines when tested on processing speed and executive function, though their verbal memory remained relatively intact.
Television and binge watching might not only make your brain deteriorate faster, but it’s also linked to loneliness and depression as well. Particularly with binge watching, which in itself could be viewed as a mild addiction, excessive amounts could be linked to these psychological symptoms due to the fact that television watching is an activity that’s normally isolated and less social.
But fret not, TV lovers. You don’t have to give surrender your Netflix password and cancel your HBO Go subscription to ensure your cognitive capabilities remain intact later in life. Researchers noted that getting some exercise, even if that means walking for half an hour a day, could be enough to get your physical juices flowing enough to keep you in good, mental shape. They also suggest breaking up TV viewing habits into shorter chunks. So instead of barreling through an entire season of “House of Cards” in one sitting, try going out and taking a hike a third of the way through. Frank Underwood will still be waiting for you when you return.