Dementia and TV: Are They Linked?
When you were a kid, how many times did your mom or dad tell you “watching too much TV will rot your brain!”??
If you were like me, you didn’t believe it. Funny, it turns out they were right!
What Research Tells Us
Researchers tells us the human brain is more active when you are sleeping than when you are watching TV. Neurodegenerative brain disorders (dementias) later in life have been directly linked to excessive television watching. And risk of death due to stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers increases.
One large study found that adults over 50 who watched more than 3 hours of TV a day experienced decline in memory of words and language over the following decade.
And another study documented higher rates of aggression, antisocial behavior and mental health problems among those who watched excessive TV.
A more active lifestyle, no matter how old or young you happen to be, can help lower the risk of cognitive decline (1,2,3).
This free activity for dementia patients stimulates the mind to think and remember, reminsce and feel nostalgic.
Switch the Boob Tube OFF and Your Brain ON!
My philosophy for exercising the brain is simple: Turn off technology and look people in the eye to read, talk, think, remember, listen and laugh together.
Reading aloud every day benefits people with dementia by:
- Stimulating memories and imagination
- Increasing focus, concentration and attention span
- Expanding knowledge
- Strengthening relationships
- Increasing relaxation and tranquility
- Being free and enjoyable entertainment
Oh, No! What Happened?!
Individuals with dementia have trouble understanding some types of news. Stories of gruesome death, murder, rape, child abuse, war, car/plane crashes, and so on should be used with extreme caution or avoided altogether. Stories of this nature can cause agitation, anxiety, depression, fear, worry, confusion, and or inability to be redirected.
Although older adults with dementia and children are not the same and should not be treated as such, I am reminded of a personal situation I’d like to share with you. I feel it will help illustrate how negative news can affect anyone, and in particular vulnerable groups, like your loved one/residents. And it may remind us all to be selective when choosing news stories to share with people with dementia.
Years ago, when my children were young, I was working in an elementary school library. The early morning of 9/11/2001 started out just like every other–my family all woke up, hurried to shower, dress, eat breakfast, grab lunches and backpacks, and head off to school.
I didn’t see or hear the news at home, so I was surprised to be swarmed by dozens of obviously scared and confused children in the school parking lot.
“Did you see all the planes flying into buildings?!” one boy asked. Another exclaimed: “Everything is burning!” And then another whispered, “People are even jumping out of the buildings!”
And finally, a small girl cried “When are they going to crash into us?”
My mind was whirling—WHAT??! What is going on here? What are they talking about?
I learned of the World Trade Center disaster once inside the school, and was heartbroken and sickened like the rest of the nation. Sadly, I realized these innocent little children had watched the news clips at home without a full understanding of what they were seeing. There was no time for explanations, so they’d come to school unable to comprehend the situation.
Each time they watched the news videos–which were continuously being reshown–they believed a new plane was flying into a new building and killing a new group of people.
A similar thing happens to someone with dementia–the ability to process such an event is difficult at best. But when taken out of context, horrific news only confuses and disturbs, and often all attempts on your part to explain the facts fall on deaf ears.
Last week, I received an urgent call from my night staff. It was 1:40am. One of our residents, Maxine, had been dozing off and on while watching the evening movie after dinner. Unfortunately, she happened to look up just as a man on screen flicked his cigarette out of camera view.
This small, seemingly insignificant action turned into a long and stressful night for her and everyone else. Sure that the man had started a fire, she refused to take her medications and get ready for bed. She wanted to remain dressed so she could evacuate the building. And she repeatedly insisted staff call the police and fire departments for help. Maxine paced and kept staring out the windows looking for the fire “that the man had started with his cigarette.”
Her agitation and fear was contagious–soon other residents became concerned. Staff could not redirect Maxine, so they called me for help before the situation got completely out of hand.
Long story short, I suggested they dim the lights, cozy up and quietly read a good story–I keep a stack of books on my desk. I knew Maxine would definitely remain agitated at first, but would eventually listen and relax.
And she finally did.
Write Your Own News…
Okay, so if current events (like COVID 19, rioting, etc.) are not an option because they may cause negative thoughts and feelings, create your own news. Do yourself a huge favor–stick to happy and uplifting events that bring a smile or laugh, and even a few moments of reminiscing.
A quick example: The New Revolution (roller coaster that goes upside down) opened at Six Flags Magic Mountain 5/8/76; Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon” hit #2 5/11/63; the University of California donated $1,500 to research a cure for athlete’s foot 5/20/30; and the first revolving restaurant, Top of the Needle in Seattle, Washington, opened 5/22/61.
Show photos when available. Encourage comments and questions. And clarify any questions, misunderstandings or misconceptions.
To begin each day, I read ‘In the News’–important and interesting events that happened in on this day in history.
These free websites provide great info and I use them all the time:
- www.onthisday.com publishes worldwide highlights and events–political, military, musical, film & TV, sports, science, space, health, birthdays, deaths, weddings & divorces for every day of the year
- www.on-this-day.com/cgi-bin/otd-tvotd.pl publishes TV history
In word doc, I create a one-page 2-column news sheet using New Times font 14-16. You can print a copy for each person or for those who want to read along/outloud or just one for yourself–depending on your group.
I like to coordinate the other activities for the day (Biography, What About?, Trivia/interesting facts, word games, puzzles, and sometimes even art), when possible, to go along with news topics. I highlight each activity on my copy so I can gather up and have ready all materials (info, pictures, music, video clips, items to show, art supplies, etc.).
For example: On 10/5, I have highlighted Chief Joseph, Nez Perce Leader biography and What About? PBS. And shared facts/trivia on Harry Truman. A quote by Ray Croc finished the newspaper nicely.
For 4/23, the biography of Shirley Temple, What About? the Four Tops, and interesting facts/trivia about William Shakespeare.
I don’t put the year on my papers, because at the end of the day, I binder clip the Newspaper, Biography, What About?, trivia/interesting facts, reminiscing, and any other activities all together and file them away for next year. The facts and dates won’t change in a year’s time. And because I print them off each day to read and pass around, they’re kept to use again.
Use your imagination to create fun and interesting news. Read with enthusiasm! Encourage comments and memories.
Please leave your comments and questions below.
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- Alzheimer’s Research UK (2020). Watching tv for longer worsens memory. https://www.alzheimersresearchuk.org/watching-tv-for-longer-worsens-memory
- Fancourt, D. & Steptoe, A. (2019). Television viewing and cognitive decline in older age: findings form the English longitudinal study of ageing. Sci Rep 9, 2851. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39354-4
- McDermott, N. (2019). Watching 3.5 hours of tv a day increases risk of dementia: study. New York Post https://nypost.com/2019/02/28/watching-3-5-hours-of-tv-a-day-increases-risk-of-dementia-study/