How Watching TV is Killing Us Softly

If you’re someone who loves nothing better than curling up on the couch for a weekend session of binge TV then I have some bad news for you. According to the results of a Japanese study the blockbuster you’re watching, or that episode of your favourite police procedural, could be your last.

The study found that people who watch more than 5 hours of TV per day are far more likely to die of a pulmonary embolism than people who watch less than two and a half hours.

That a pulmonary embolism, more commonly known as a blood clot, can be fatal is a well documented medical fact. Typically starting in another part of the body, like a leg or the pelvis, the blood clot makes it way through our blood vessels until it reaches our lungs. Here it can become trapped in a narrower blood vessel, causing a blockage that could lead to heart failure.


How much is too much?

Taking into account the viewing habits of over 85,000 adults, the study was part of an even bigger and ongoing study carried out by the Japanese and covered a period of almost 20 years. Participants were asked to record and then report their daily TV viewing habits. The tick-box type information journal gave them a choice of under 2.5 hours, 2.5 to 4.9 and over 5 hours of television viewing time. In addition, information regarding physical activities, health history and body mass index was also collected, along with whether the test participants smoked or not.


During the long-running research period, pulmonary embolisms caused the death of 59 participants. The study, published in Circulation Magazine, claimed to have found enough evidence to prove that people who sat in front of the TV for less than 2 and a half hours per day were 70% less at risk of suffering a fatal embolism than those participants who indulged in a daily binge of 2.5 to 5 hours.


And if that isn’t enough to make you almost choke on your popcorn, the study also found that the risk of dying went up by 40% for every two hours we sit watching television.


The battle with the binge

Since the study was launched researchers have had ample opportunity to observe how our viewing habits have evolved over the years. Binge-watching in particular, (watching a whole load of episodes of the same show in a short time period) has become enormously popular, said Dr. Toru Shirakawa, head of the study and researcher into public health at the Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine. And according to the study, our binge habit continues to grow.


The research didn’t just place our television viewing habits under the microscope. The hours we spend using our computer devices and smartphones also came under scrutiny. But as a relatively new phenomena, the researchers wouldn’t let themselves be drawn to any conclusions and noted simply that ‘more information is needed’.


Pulmonary embolisms in Japan are less frequent than here in the West. But the fact that the Japanese are now adopting certain aspects of our lifestyle is a big cause of concern for Dr. Hiroyasu Iso, another public health researcher at Osaka and a co-author of the study who said in a statement that the decline into a culture of inactivity,  “...  may raise their risk of pulmonary embolism.”


So, by now you’ve guessed that it’s not watching TV per se’ which is killing us. Rather, it’s the long periods of inactivity which causes our blood to slow and then pool. This is when clots are formed.


Move more

But all is not lost. There are some very simple steps us binge viewers can take to drastically reduce our risk of a pulmonary embolism. And moving more is a good place to start. After about an hour of viewing we should hit the pause button and get up and stretch our legs. Walk around a little. Drink a glass of water. If you’re wondering why this advice sounds familiar then it’s because it is the same advice doctors give to people embarking on long flights. Dr. Iso also had a tip for those of us with a few extra pounds, “... for people who are overweight, losing weight may reduce the risk.” he said.


You’ll probably not be surprised to read that the Japanese study isn’t the first of its kind. A 2014 study in Spain also looked at the possible link between television viewing habits and the possibility of an early demise. After a study period of 8 years, the results claimed that viewers who spent more than 3 hours a day in front of the TV had a higher likelihood of dying during that period than those who watched less.


And another study suggests that young adults hooked on ‘the box’ will probably begin to notice the impact of their bad viewing habit is having on their brain as early as midlife.


Is binging bad for the brain?

This study looked at 3,200 people with an average age of 25 and lasted a period of 25 years. The researchers found that watching too much TV (over 3 hours a day) can have a negative effect on our brains with participants in the binge category more apt to perform badly in cognitive tests than peers with less TV viewing hours.


At the centre of the research was the premise that a lack of physical activity is a lot worse for us than we already thought. Exercise is important not only for our bodies but for our brains, too. “Being physically active at any time in your life is good for your brain.” said Tina D. Hoang, author of the report and member of the North California Institute of Research and Education.


Every 5 years, research volunteers were asked to fill in a questionnaire documenting how much time they spent watching TV, if and how much they exercised, along with details regarding their eating habits.


At the end of the 25-year study, researchers examined the cognitive functions of the participants. Three tests were devised to record how fast they could process new information, measure verbal memory levels and assess executive function skills, i.e. the qualities which enable us to plan, organise and pay attention.



Why not read a book instead?

353 participants were registered as watching more than 3 hours TV per day and were found to perform worse on some of the tests than participants who watched less. 528 people who exercised less than the other participants performed worse on some tests than their more physically active peers. The 107, who according to the study exercised least of all and watched more TV than anyone else, performed poorly in all of the cognitive tests.


Why, is still relatively unclear. Tina Hoang suggests that, “...television viewing is not a cognitively engaging way of spending time.Unlike say, reading a book.” Another hypothesis puts forward the theory that people who regularly binge watch have an all round unhealthy attitude to their physical and mental health.

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