A recent study posted in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity has caused a discussion on the causes of dementia by linking high levels of TV viewing time to increased risks of developing dementia and depression later in life. The flashy headlines were attention-grabbing, but also misleading. They implied watching TV itself somehow directly causes cognitive decline. However, the reality is far more complex.
We’ve talked with Dr. Mitch Clionsky, a board-certified neuropsychologist, as he dives into whether cutting TV time actually matters in dementia prevention.
Let's take a deeper look at what the study really found, why correlation does not equal causation when it comes to dementia risk, and the lifestyle factors that truly move the needle on brain health.
Debunking the Sensational Headlines
The researchers found that people over age 60 who watched more than 3.5 hours of television per day had a higher chance of developing dementia and depression down the road. At first glance, this seems like a clear-cut case against binge-watching your favorite shows. However, it's vital to realize these study results only show association—not a direct causal pathway. Television viewing time could simply be a marker of other unhealthy lifestyle factors. In fact, the authors openly acknowledged the study was not set up in a way to determine cause and effect.
So before you throw out your TV in a panic, let's take a closer look at why excessive TV watching may correlate with higher dementia risk.
Sedentary Behaviors and Social Isolation
It's well-established that regular exercise and social connections are vital for brain health. Unfortunately, watching hours of television promotes the opposite: sedentary behaviors and social isolation.
Previous research shows people who spend more leisure time sitting tend to exercise less. And greater social isolation and loneliness are associated with increased dementia risk.In other words, excessive TV viewing may contribute to a broader lifestyle pattern that accelerates cognitive decline. The watching itself probably doesn't damage cognition directly.
Less Cognitive Stimulation
Television also requires little active thinking or problem-solving. It may displace activities that challenge the mind—like reading, puzzles, learning a skill or crafting. Less time spent on cognitively stimulating hobbies could negatively impact memory and thinking skills over time. One study found sedentary older adults who don't participate in mental activities have faster hippocampal atrophy—a hallmark sign of dementia. Again, the culprit here is likely the overall inactive lifestyle marked by hours of easy TV watching. Not the TV itself.
Moderately Engaged Computer Users Saw Lower Risk
Interestingly, the researchers found participants over 60 who used a computer for non-work purposes up to 3 hours per day actually had lower dementia risk. Although they were presumably sitting for long periods, they did see cognitive benefits. The authors suggest moderate computer users may have more social connections, intellectual engagement, and purposeful information seeking. These are all markers of cognitive reserve protective against dementia.
Overall, this study reaffirms complex lifestyle factors work synergistically to impact brain health. No single behavior—like TV watching or computer use—tells the whole story. We have to look at overall patterns.
Lifestyle Changes to Reduce Dementia Risk
If excessive TV viewing reflects broader risk-enhancing lifestyle factors like isolation and inactivity, what types of habits should we strive for instead? Comprehensive lifestyle changes—not quick fixes like putting your TV on a timer—will provide the best protection against cognitive decline. These include:
- Regular exercise: Cardio, strength training and activities requiring coordination and learning new moves help build cognitive reserve.
- Social connections: Having strong social ties and a sense of purpose supports cognitive health.
- Mental stimulation: Reading books, trying new hobbies, and playing challenging games strengthen neural networks.
- Healthy diet: The MIND diet aimed at brain health may lower dementia risk by over 50% for adherents.
- Stress management: Unmanaged chronic stress can negatively impact memory, concentration, and mental performance.
- Good sleep: Getting enough high-quality sleep is vital for clearing waste proteins and consolidating memories.
Following the full slate of science-backed recommendations around healthy lifestyles and brain use can dramatically reduce dementia risk—far more than any single change.
The alluring headlines about TV watching may grab our attention. However, maintaining brain health requires dedication to positive lifestyle habits offering lifelong neuroprotective effects. Turn off autoplay, but also commit to staying active, engaged, and connected in body, mind, and spirit.