Depression, dementia? Why binge-watching shows can be bad for your mental health

HMH’s Parulekar: Not only is it bad to be sedentary for long periods of time, but binge watching can have long-term impact on your mental acuity

From “Ted Lasso” to “Severance” to “Succession,” there is a lot of good television to watch. And, with streaming platforms dropping the whole season at one time, it is tempting to binge watch it all at once.

Please don’t.

Not only is it bad for your health to be sedentary for long periods of time, but binge watching can have a long-term impact on your mental acuity. You can actually set the stage for dementia when you are older, by binge watching in your 30s and 40s.

While streaming platforms made binge watching possible before the pandemic began, the free time we had while many of us found ourselves locked in the house with nothing to do accelerated the trend. It was a good way to kill time, but watching too much TV too often has the potential to become a very unhealthy habit.

Much research has been done on television’s effects on children, but adults have often been left out of many of these data collections. It’s no surprise that the sedentary behavior of binge-watching television can negatively impact our physical health, but recent studies show it’s also a bad habit for long-term brain health and function. Researchers have found that moderate to high TV viewing during midlife is associated with increased memory loss and decreased fine motor skills. Studies have also found a link between high television consumption and the onset of depression.

As life expectancy in the U.S. continues to rise, experts believe the population’s risk of developing cognitive impairment or dementia will rise, too. Making a few healthy changes today can help prevent the development of dementia down the line. The neurobiology of dementia begins early, in your 40s and 50s. Modifying your behaviors and lifestyle, including cutting back on binge watching, during middle-age years can help preserve cognition as you age and decrease your risk of dementia.

Being more active and avoiding sedentary behaviors, such as binge-watching TV, is a necessary lifestyle change for adults to make to maintain their brain health. Adults in their middle age should focus on the four M’s of mental fitness: what matters, mobility, mental stimulation and medication.

Focus on the healthy and beneficial things that matter to you and have a positive impact on your life, such as socializing, sleeping well, eating healthy and not smoking or using other substances. Maintain mobility; get up and get active. A lifestyle that incorporates plenty of exercise will lead to better health outcomes and help you preserve mobility as you age. Find means of mental stimulation, including a fun new hobby that will help fill your free time. Engage in activities that encourage creative thinking, teach you something new or help you relax. Talk with your physician about medications. Be careful with the use of high-risk medications, such as sedatives (including over-the-counter sleep medications) and hypnotics. They can increase your risk of dementia.

Ultimately, there are a lot of factors, including some genetic, that play a role on whether or not an older person develops dementia, but the more you can do to limit your risk, the better. That includes turning off the television rather than binge watching an entire season of “Ted Lasso” in one day. So, please, for your brain’s health, put down the remote and get active — both physically and mentally.

Dr. Manisha Parulekar is the chief of geriatrics at Hackensack University Medical Center and the co-director of the Center for Memory Loss and Brain Health.