Watching TV During Childhood May Impact Long-Term Health

New research suggests that children and teens who watch too much TV may be at higher risk of experiencing metabolic syndrome as adults.

Metabolic syndrome is an umbrella term for a cluster of risk factors associated with health conditions like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These factors include obesity, insulin resistance, and high blood pressure.

Moreover, health experts say metabolic syndrome is linked to a sedentary lifestyle.

One of the most common sedentary behaviors is watching TV, especially among children and teens. But can too much TV time impact a young person's metabolic health well into adulthood?

That's the question researchers from the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, hoped to answer in their new research published on July 24 in Pediatrics.

The study investigated whether TV viewing time during childhood was associated with an increased risk of metabolic syndrome at age 45. To conduct the research, the team used data from 879 individuals born in Dunedin in 1972 and 1973. They looked at self-reported weekday TV viewing times among children ages five, seven, nine, 11, 13, and 15. The scientists also examined TV viewing times when the participants reached 32 years old.

Then, the researchers determined whether any participants had three or more indications of metabolic syndrome at age 45. These included high glycated hemoglobin, increased waist circumference, high blood triglyceride, low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and high blood pressure.

After adjusting for factors such as sex, socioeconomic status, BMI at age five, and TV viewing time as adults, the team found that participants who watched more television during childhood were also more likely to have indications of metabolic syndrome by age 45.

On average, the participants watched just over two hours of TV a day on weekdays, and males watched slightly more TV and had a higher incidence of metabolic syndrome than females. However, TV time impacts both sexes, and the researchers say the link between watching TV and metabolic syndrome may be more pronounced in females.

What's more, the team found little evidence that watching less TV as an adult reversed the risk of adult metabolic syndrome.

"Our finding that the association between young people's television viewing and the later risk for metabolic syndrome was independent of adult viewing also indicates that there may be a sensitive period during childhood when excessive television viewing has a long-lasting influence on adult health," the study authors wrote.

The authors also note that watching TV is associated with eating more, less physical activity, and poor sleep. And these habits may persist into adulthood, which could lead to metabolic syndrome.

Though the participants or their parents self-reported the TV viewing times, which could have impacted the results, the scientists say their findings "provide evidence that there is a long-term association between television viewing during childhood and adolescence with metabolic syndrome in mid-adulthood."

They suggest reducing the time children and young people spend on screen-based activities could have significant long-term health benefits.

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