The boob in the boob tube

Does watching television lead to cognitive decline (i.e., make you stupid?)  Can watching television lead to Alzheimer’s?  Now that the term boob tube is marching on near its 50th anniversary, informed citizens want to know.  Some of them, anyway – and the answer comes before the commercial break.


What Leads to Cognitive Decline and Alzheimer’s?

As it turns out, lots of stuff.  At this year’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, fewer of the old culprits – smoking and high blood pressure and obesity, depression and drug use, were described.   More evidence was found that complexity – as in gnarly decision making on the job – keeps people away from Alzheimer’s.  So does more education – especially early in life.  Unsurprisingly, type 1 diabetics – who the public sees as thinner and more physically active than adult onset type II diabetics – also face more cognitive decline.  But the bigger news  came with a prospective study of cardiac disease.


What Can Television Do to Foster Cognitive Impairment?

Nothing good.  Still, the numbers only really looked bad in people who watched television for four hours or more a day – on average. But these results were in young people.

This part of the  CARDIA Study  (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults – at least at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, a Y equals an I) prospectively looked at 3,200 black and white adults aged 18-30 – and then followed them for 25 years.  Only 11% fit the criteria for watching an average of 4 hours of television a day.  Yet for tests of memory, executive function, and something hard to fudge – processing speed – things were not so great for the major television watchers.  Results got worse through the years.

As it did for those who were true couch potatoes – people who effectively did not walk around very much.  Of the 17% in that category, the numbers also looked pretty bad.  And in the merely 3% who managed to both watch lots of TV and hardly  move, poor cognitive function was about twice as common.

The authors controlled for age, race, smoking, alcohol use, BMI, high blood pressure, education.  But they could have missed people who were developing chronic diseases – not yet at a diagnosable level.

Sadly, lots of other research provides similar results.  One notorious Australian study claimed that for every hour of television watching, people lost about 20 minutes of life.  Sitting around does not help your brain – or the rest of you.

But does television viewing itself making your ability to think and act worse? Right now the major culprit appears physical inactivity. Sitting is a real risk factor to health.  Yet watching TV alone also  looks like it adds its own negative results to the productive cognitive capacity  of the human brain.  The reason may lie in the nature of information itself.


Information in the Information Age

Though people often think of themselves as “living” machines, they’re not.  Machines don’t rebuilt themselves.  We do.  In fact, what what we do is what we become.

The body processes information for a living.  There’s a lot of it.  The environment – inside and outside – is constantly changing.  Yet most of that environmental shift is not conscious to us – or at least, available to us in nice, convenient chunks of programming.

We are not usually aware of the pollutants and viruses in the air around us. Our body is.  We do not notice when and how our gut sloughs off its lining every 36 hours and entirely remakes itself.  Our brain knows.   Nor we do see how sleep reforms and renews memory and cognition, so seamlessly we don’t realize that every time we retrieve a memory that memory is transformed.

Our body is not fooled.

Yet our prejudice is that “information” is stuff we can look at and talk about.  The vast majority of brain activity occurs below that level of awareness.

Television should be an information rich environment.  Think of all the scenery chewing actors, the dramatic settings, the constantly shifting visuals, the colors.  Yet television is generally a passive medium.  Most of the time we don’t have to do much more with it than watch and hear.

From a body  information standpoint, walking down the corridor is much more engaging.  The changes in heart rate, muscle tone, muscle action, planning movement three dimensional space, the stress placed on the immune system, means that the real informational load is high. The result is the need to change.  We need to modify and grow – just from talking a walk down the corridor.  Ironically, going to the john in the middle of a soap opera may be the most information rich activity television watching supplies.

Plus, sitting is dangerous for us.  The unhealthy changes in heart rate, energy metabolism, and brain activity from sitting like a mollusk now look like they will age us beyond our years.

So the boob in the boob tube is not the foolishness or triviality of television programming.  It’s us.  And in a world where screens are everywhere, from our desks to our dashboards, the tendency to sit and watch may become overwhelming.

And what is designed to make us smart may make us act in ways more silly, foolish – and even stupid.

It does not have to be this way.  People can type standing up, walk as they talk on cellphones, put a stepper in front of the couch. That requires considering the consequences of our technological choices.

Why bother when there’s millions of channels to watch?



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