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How Much TV You Watch Now May Impact Your Brain Later in Life

A new study examines the link between TV viewing habits in early adulthood and mental ability later in life.

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Need another reason to stop vegging out in front of the TV and be more productive, say at the gym? A new study published in JAMA Psychiatry links watching too much television in early adulthood with decreased mental capacity in middle age. Grr...darn you, Netflix!

Over the course of 25 years, researchers asked 3,200 adults who were about 25 years old at the outset (and mostly white and high school educated) to fill out a series of surveys about their lifestyle habits, including how much they watch television and how much physical activity they get.

Researchers determined 11 percent of participants were high TV-viewers, and watched more than three hours of television each day. While they may be all caught up on Downton Abbey by age 50, these people were more likely to perform poorly on mental function testing, such as the speed at which they could plan, organize, and perform tasks, versus the low TV-watchers. Incidentally both groups performed similarly with regards to verbal memory skills.

The 16 percent of participants who were classified as having low levels of physical activity also performed more poorly on the mental tests. High TV-viewers with low levels of activity doubled their risk for, well, being less sharp.

"We found that low physical activity and high TV watching in young adulthood were associated with worse cognitive [mental] function" in middle-age, explained Tina Hoang, from the Northern California Institute for Research and Education at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

In other words, if you spend every night after your kiddo goes to bed surfing Amazon Prime for old movies, it may be time to get off the couch and preserve your brain for those years down the road, when your kids are out of the house and starting to have little ones of their own.

It's important to note this is a preliminary study, and only establishes a link between boob tube viewing habits and mental function later in life, not a direct cause-and-effect relationship. There are also many other factors that may impact a person's mental acumen in middle age. But spending less time in front of the television and more time being active doesn't really have a downside, especially if you consider the benefits for your brain down the road, when you'll need all the help you can get!

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.