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Soaps Talk Shows May Dull Aging Brains

Daytime TV drama linked to poorer cognition in older women, study finds

MONDAY, March 20, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Could Oprah and General Hospital be bad for your brain?

New research suggests that elderly women who watch daytime soap operas and talk shows are more likely to suffer from cognitive impairment than women who abstain from such fare.

Researchers stress that it's not clear if watching these TV shows leads to weaker brainpower, or vice-versa. And they say it's possible that another explanation might be at work.

But there's definitely "something going on with those two types of television programming," said study co-author Joshua Fogel, an assistant professor of behavioral sciences at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.

Fogel launched the federally funded study after wondering how television affects the brains of older women, many of whom are avid watchers of the tube. Previous studies had already looked at possible connections between TV watching and senility, but came up with differing results, Fogel said.

In the new study, Fogel and a colleague looked at data from a 1996 study of healthy women in Baltimore aged 70-79.

The researchers asked the women about their favorite types of TV shows, offering a list of 14 options including news, soap operas, comedies and game shows, among others.

The women also took tests that measured their memory, decision-making abilities and other cognitive skills.

Fogel and his colleague looked for patterns linking cognition abilities and the women's favorite TV shows. Their findings appear in the March issue of the Southern Medical Journal.

Women who watched talk shows were 7.3 times more likely to have long-term memory problems, the researchers said, while those who watched soap operas were 13.5 times more likely to have problems with attention.

The researchers didn't find any evidence that TV shows helped improve cognitive abilities in the women studied, either.

What's going on? The study can't and doesn't answer that question, Fogel said, leaving it unclear if a preference for soaps and talk shows is a cause of cognitive difficulties or a symptom. "One possibility is that people are unable to watch the other shows because they're too cognitively stimulating," Fogel said.

One researcher who has studied the effects of television watching on children said the study suggests that, "viewing television in a way that reduces active mental engagement may lead to poorer cognitive outcomes in older people."

Frederick Zimmerman, director of the University of Washington's Child Health Institute, added that the findings are significant because the apparent effects of television watching are quite striking. He said he's also found evidence that excessive television watching hurts kids' academic and cognitive development.

But Zimmerman cautioned that "it would be premature to tell Granny to turn off the soaps on the basis of this study."

And in his editorial, Albert Einstein College of Medicine neurologist Dr. Joe Verghese said that, "depending on the program, television viewing might even have cognitive benefits. Generations of children have grown up learning their alphabets, and presumably increasing their cognitive reserve, from programs such as Sesame Street. Television viewing may also help reduce chronic stress levels."

Fogel believes the study findings are more than just a curiosity, however. In fact, he thinks doctors should take them into account when they evaluate patients.

If an elderly woman says she enjoys watching talk shows or soap operas, Fogel said, that might be a sign that she's having cognitive problems and should undergo special screening.

More information

For advice on healthy aging, head to the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

SOURCES: Joshua Fogel, Ph.D., assistant professor, behavioral sciences, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York; and Frederick Zimmerman, Ph.D., director, Child Health Institute, University of Washington, Seattle; March 2006 Southern Medical Journal
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