Watching hours of TV is tied to verbal memory decline in older people

It’s unclear if television watching actually causes problems with recollection

older person watching TV

SCREEN TIME  People age 50 and up who watched lots of TV were more likely to experience declines in verbal memory than those who viewed less, a large survey found.


People often fret about television time for children. A new study examines the habit at the other end of life.

The more television older people watched, the worse they recalled a list of words, researchers report online February 28 in Scientific Reports. But the study describes only a correlation; it can’t say that lots of TV time actually causes the memory slips.

Researchers examined data on 3,590 people collected as part of the English Longitudinal Study of Aging, a long-running study of English people aged 50 and older. In 2008 and 2009, participants reported how many hours a day, on average, they spent watching television. In addition to the surveys, participants listened to a recording of 10 common words, one word every two seconds. Then, people tried to remember as many words as they could, both immediately after hearing the words and after a short delay.

Six years later, people took the same tests. People who watched more than 3.5 hours of TV daily back in 2008 or 2009 were more likely to have worse verbal memory scores six years later, the researchers found. Television “dose” seemed to matter: Beyond that 3.5-hour threshold, the more TV people watched, the bigger their later verbal memory scores declined.  

It’s not known whether television time actually causes verbal memory problems. The reverse could be true: People who have worse memories might be more likely to watch more television. Still, the researchers suggest that TV might cause a certain kind of mental stress that might contribute to memory trouble.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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