March 20, 2006

Daytime TV Tied to Poorer Mental Scores in Elderly

By Amy Norton

NEW YORK -- Older women who say talk shows and soap operas are their favorite TV programs tend to score more poorly on tests of memory, attention and other cognitive skills, researchers reported Monday.

That doesn't mean that daytime television is a brain drain, they say, since it's not clear that there's a direct relationship between the two.

But the findings do point to some association between TV choices and intellectual function, and that could prove useful in evaluating older people for cognitive decline, according lead investigator Dr. Joshua Fogel of Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.

A study of 289 older women without dementia found that those who rated talk shows and soaps as their favorite programs performed more poorly on tests of memory, attention and mental quickness than their peers who cited other types of shows.

What's more, they were at greater risk of showing signs of clinical impairment. For example, compared with women who preferred to watch news programs, those who favored soaps were more than seven times more likely to show signs of impairment on one of the tests, while talk show fans were more than 13 times more likely to demonstrate impairment.

"Those findings are quite robust," Fogel told Reuters Health.

He said it's not possible to tell whether the programs somehow contribute to cognitive decline or whether women in the early stages of decline gravitate toward those shows. Preferences for daytime TV could also be a marker of a sedentary, homebound lifestyle, and research suggests that staying physically and socially active can help stave off mental decline.

But regardless of the reasons, a preference for talk shows and soaps "is a marker of something suspicious," Fogel said.

He believes that doctors could ask older patients about their favorite TV shows as one way of spotting those who might need more screening for cognitive decline.

"It's really a simple, friendly question to ask," Fogel said.

The findings, which are published in the Southern Medical Journal, are based on questionnaires and standard cognitive tests completed by 289 women ages 70 to 79. None had dementia or physical disabilities and the researchers factored in variables such as education, race, depression and history of heart attack, high blood pressure or diabetes.

Even with those factors considered, TV habits were related to cognitive performance.

According to Fogel, a potential explanation rests in the fact that talk shows and soap operas involve so-called "parasocial relationships," where viewers feel a connection to a show's characters or host. Such shows may, for instance, be better able to hold the attention of older women with some cognitive impairment.

"This doesn't mean 'Oprah' is bad for you," Fogel said. However, an older woman's fondness for the show could signal a possible problem, according to the researcher.

Asking patients about TV viewing and other daily activities could be "very useful" in assessing their cognitive health, according to Dr. Joe Verghese of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

But it's not time to toss the remote control, he writes in an accompanying editorial. Some programs, Verghese notes, might actually benefit intellectual functioning, and TV watching can help some people manage their stress levels.

SOURCE: Southern Medical Journal, March 2006.