This common habit linked to 8 major causes of death

“Binge-watching” on Netflix…or Hulu…or Amazon Prime…or on any number of other Internet-based streaming services is all the rage right now. Even among Baby Boomers.

But you might as well binge on greasy French fries and ice cream, considering the results of a new study about the effects of watching TV conducted by researchers from the National Cancer Institute. My professional colleague and close, personal friend of many years, Dr. Demetrius Albanes, co-authored this study, so it particularly caught my eye.

TV viewing has become the single most common sedentary behavior activity in modern America. And for this study, researchers looked at the causes of death associated with watching TV. You’ll be stunned by the many causes of death associated with this seemingly benign habit.

New dangers found for prolonged TV watching

The new study followed 221,426 men and women ages 50 to 71 years who were free of chronic disease at the study’s outset. Participants provided self-reports of TV viewing habits at baseline. Then, the researchers followed the participants until death or December 31, 2011.

Previous research had linked prolonged TV watching with an increased risk of cancer death and heart disease. But after an average follow-up period of 14.1 years, the researchers identified new associations, linking TV watching with many more causes of death — including Type II diabetes, influenza/pneumonia, Parkinson’s disease, and suicide.

In fact, with each two-hour per day increase in TV watching, risk of death went up by:

-7 percent for cancer

-23 percent for heart disease

-28 percent for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

-56 percent for Type II diabetes

-24 percent for influenza/pneumonia

-35 percent for Parkinson’s disease

-33 percent for liver disease

-43 percent for suicide

Risk began to increase at three to four hours per day for most causes they examined. The investigators took a number of other factors into consideration that might explain the associations observed, such as caloric and alcohol intake, smoking, and the health status of the population. But when they controlled for these factors in statistical models, the associations remained.

Of course, these are associations and not direct cause-and-effect findings.

But they are striking.

It’s not hard to imagine a depressed person who sits passively in front of the TV for hours and hours may eventually commit suicide. (Of course, antidepressant drugs can induce the same kind of zombie-like behavior associated with habitual TV watching, not to mention increase the risk of suicide itself.)

TV watching replaces other heathy habits

Time spent watching TV is time not spent doing other, healthy activities — such as spending time outdoors, doing yard work, walking, swimming, or even enjoying mind-body exercises like meditation or yoga.

Plus, people who spend more time watching TV may consume more unhealthy foods and beverages. This observation could probably help explain the findings regarding Type II diabetes and liver disease, for example.

Of course, people with acute infections would certainly be expected to spend more time passively watching TV while ill and recovering. But lack of physical activity also suppresses the immune system in the first place.

In the 1960s, the Federal Communications (FCC) Commissioner, Newton Minnow, famously described TV as a “vast wasteland.” TV watchers may also end up with a “vast waistline,” which would help account for some of these associations.

On average, 80 percent of American adults watch 3.5 hours of television per day and multiple observational studies have demonstrated a link between TV viewing and poorer health.

You might think that spending time in front of an electronic screen whether television or computer would be equally bad. But new research shows it may not be so simple.  I will tell you more about that difference next time.


  1. “Causes of Death Associated With Prolonged TV Viewing: NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study,” Am J Prev Med. 2015 Dec;49(6):811-21. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2015.05.023. Epub 2015 Jul 26