While extensive research has been conducted regarding the impact of television on the behavior and development of children, little has been done at the other end of the life span – regarding the impact of television watching on older adults.
Perhaps not surprisingly, seniors tend to spend more time watching television than their younger counterparts. They aren’t working, for one thing – so, by definition, they have more time available.
Many older adults live by themselves and experience significant levels of loneliness, in need of some sort of companionship. In fact, a study of over a million older adults in the UK provided this statistic: For 49% of the study’s participants (ages 65 and older), their television or their pets were described as their main form of company.
Even in an ideal situation – where individuals are active in their communities, spend time with their families, and leave the house regularly to run errands or participate in cultural events – when they are at home, older adults may rely on TV programming as a source of stimulation, to escape too-quiet homes, or even just as a pleasant way to pass the time.
And for those who aren’t so mobile that leave their homes less frequently, TV provides some measure of connection to the outside world. There’s no denying that television has its benefits, particularly given the level of loneliness that many aging adults face. But how much television watching is healthy – and is there a point at which it can cause people harm?
Extensive TV watching in older adults is linked to memory loss
Researchers at University College London in England analyzed data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), a study that involved 3,662 adults ages 50 and older. From 2008–2009, and again from 2014–2015, the study’s participants answered questions about how much time they spent watching TV, and completed tests of verbal memory and fluency.
The results were clear – watching an excessive amount of television over lengthy periods of time was associated with a decline in verbal memory.
Those who watched television for 3.5 hours or more per day over time saw an average decline of 8-10% in word-related and language-related memory. This rate is double the average decline for people who watched less than 3.5 hours of TV per day, who showed a 4-5% average decline over the same period.
What makes excessive TV watching so harmful?
There are two possible reasons mentioned by the authors of the research that could explain the connection between TV and memory loss. The first – and most obvious – is that people who spend more time watching TV have less time and energy to do other activities that exercise the mind, such as reading, cognitive puzzles and games, or participating in cultural activities.
The second reason is more complex. The researchers proposed the possibility that watching television causes what they call “cognitive stress” – particularly vis-à-vis programs with graphic, violent, or suspenseful content. As explained by the study’s authors, “Television has been described as a unique cultural activity in that it combines strong, rapidly changing fragmentary dense sensory stimuli on the one hand with passivity from the viewer on the other.”
In other words, the brain is working while the rest of the body is not. This “alert-passive interaction” seems to create a situation that is particularly taxing on verbal memory skills.
Seniors watching TV: TV’s role as a companion
According to the Institute on Aging, in 2010, nearly one third of all older adults in the US lived on their own. Consequently, many of those older adults - particularly those with less mobility – spend a significant portion of their time at home on their own, which eventually tends to cause immense levels of loneliness and isolation.
Television provides a sense of comfort and companionship around the house – some background noise to entertain them, keep them company, and one of their primary connections to the world around them. Yet as we’ve just learned, while a little TV here and there may seem harmless, excessive TV watching (3.5 hours or more per day) can cause detrimental health effects over time, especially for older adults, who tend to watch much more TV than their younger counterparts – yet they enjoy it much less.
Looking ahead: The search for healthier solutions
So, where do we go from here? With such clear-cut repercussions of seniors watching TV extensively, it’s time to seek out more advantageous alternatives. Fortunately, there are a number of feasible solutions older adults can turn to, depending on their age and mental or physical capabilities.
For those on the more active and engaged side, getting involved in social or cultural activities in the community, outside of the house – such as book clubs, weekly card games, or volunteering projects – can be ideal sources of companionship, entertainment, and mental stimulation.
Aside from inviting friends and family over more often, older adults incapable of leaving their homes could try to focus on reading or listening to short stories, puzzles, or cognitive games for a healthier means of amusement, as well as weekly visits from volunteer companion programs, phone call buddies and interaction initiatives (such as via CareMore’s Togetherness program) to regularly converse with, or even adopting pets to combat sentiments of isolation and loneliness.
Older adults should feel empowered, no matter what their age and capabilities might be. The time has arrived for us to re-think the current paradigm of seniors’ heavy dependence on television, and start to shift towards healthier means of entertainment, stimulation and togetherness in the years to come.