I WAS A teenager when I first became aware of any serious health hazard associated with televisions. My neighbor was struggling to carry his new color TV up his front stairs when he slipped and fell. He tumbled down the stairs, his TV came crashing down on him, and an awful cacophony of broken glass, moans, and curses ensued. For a while, the only thing my neighbor could channel was pain and rage.
In medical school, during my pediatric ward rotation, I cared for a young boy who suffered a head injury after a television set tipped over in his family's living room. From that distressing episode, I learned that "television tip-over" was a common source of head and neck injuries among children. More recently, a report last year estimated that 42,000 injuries from television tip-overs were treated in U.S. emergency rooms between 1998 and 2007, some of them proving fatal.
My concern about TV's formidable potential to cause harm has been reinforced and expanded over subsequent years of medical practice. For example, I saw many patients whose sleep disorders improved or resolved only after they stopped watching hysterical TV newscasters and drumbeating, panic-bating nightly "news" shows. I cared for patients who had been rendered anxious by drug company TV ads that "asked" — in a manner suggesting no real question — whether they "could have" cancer, psoriasis, cancer, depression, cancer, high cholesterol, cancer, weak bones, halitosis. And cancer.
Televised misinformation about health and misrepresentation about medical practice have been just as injurious to patients. Patients sometimes make serious decisions about their health or the care of loved ones based upon flawed perceptions offered to TV viewers. For example, patients are often surprised — and sometimes made suspicious — when informed about the (lower) real-world odds of overcoming some serious illnesses that seem to fare quite well on television. Agreeably, one stands a better chance of defying death or responding favorably to CPR and chemotherapy as a character actor on a televised medical series. Someone suffering a mysterious illness seeking diagnostic clarity would surely profit by enrolling in acting school and landing a role on "House."
But such rosy expectations of medicine's prowess can prove thorny when perception clashes with reality at an ailing patient's bedside. This is a most inopportune time for worried patients or anguished family members to receive reality-checks from physicians that offer grievously smaller payoffs.
Children appear particularly susceptible to some unhealthy side effects of television viewing. In 2007, a study published in Pediatrics found that television viewing for more than two hours a day could promote behavior, attention and sleep problems. Another study published five years earlier in the same journal associated television viewing with the initiation of cigarette smoking. And snack food advertising during children's programming has only served to ... no, don't get me started.
Pertinent to all age groups, multiple studies have linked TV viewing time with weight gain, obesity, diabetes and heightened risk to develop heart disease. The more hours we spend sitting on the proverbial couch staring at the TV, the more likely we are to be watching our own health decline. Not a pretty picture. Still, the show seems to go on.
All along, many of us have hoped that engaging in regular exercise would neutralize the unhealthy effects of prolonged sedentary hours spent before a television or computer screen. Some of us have optimistically invested in a variety of vitamins and supplements that promise to promote our health — and all we have to do is unscrew a few bottle caps. Perhaps we even gleaned these recommendations from TV infomercials and newscasts?
Alas. A new study published last week in the journal Circulation suggests that the big picture about our health is not so simple. Regular exercise definitely remains a good thing — but it does not necessarily cancel out the unhealthy sedentary hours spent in front of a television set. In addition, the risk of dying at an earlier age — especially from heart disease — increased with each hour spent surfing the channels instead of ... well, surfing ... or walking, or just plain moving around.
In this study, researchers observed 8,800 adults over a median time period of 61/2 years. They witnessed a steadily progressive rise in the participants' mortality rates with each additional hour of TV viewing. For example, per hourly increment in viewing, researchers documented an 18 percent increased risk of premature death due to cardiovascular disease — regardless of one's daily exercise levels. Subjects who watched TV for four or more hours daily scored an 80 percent increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
Collectively, all of these observations make one wonder whether TV is programmed to kill. This should concern many American households in which TV viewing has substituted for human companionship or caregiver supervision — baby-sitting for children, distraction for grandparents, diversion for weary mates, downtime for workers returning home at night. Indeed, time-use surveys suggest that TV viewing currently accounts for the most hours of waking time spent in an average American household — about five hours a day.
It's prime time to reflect upon the manner in which many of us live and arrange our lives in relation to the centrality of the television set. To make a conscious and healthy choice to move through life, instead of sitting it out on the bench — or couch. To let go of the remote control and, instead, reach for something that stretches our minds and muscles, that pulls us into healthier relationships to our very own lives, our families and our community.
Kate Scannell is a Bay Area physician and syndicated columnist.