Watching too much TV can kill you, researchers warn

An 18-year study of 86,000 people has found that the more you watch, the greater the risk of suffering a pulmonary embolism

People who spend hours bingeing on television shows run the risk of suffering a fatal pulmonary embolism, according to a major new study of more than 86,000 people tracked over 18 years.

Pulmonary embolism is a blockage in the artery that carries blood from the heart to the lungs, and is usually caused by a blood clot formed in a vein in the leg. Up to 60,000 people die as a result of pulmonary embolism each year in Britain.

Those who indulge in marathon TV sessions should take the same precautions against developing deadly blood clots as they would on a long-distance flight, warns the research, which was presented at the European Society of Cardiology conference in London.

It is the first study into the links between prolonged television watching and fatal pulmonary embolism. A boom in online television services in recent years has allowed people to download and watch entire series of shows such as Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black in one sitting.

But people who sit in front of the television for five hours or more a day have more than twice the risk of suffering a deadly blood clot as those watching less than two and a half hours per day, the research says. And the danger of having a fatal pulmonary embolism is even higher among those between 40 and 59 who watch more than five hours daily.

They are at more than six times greater risk than those watching less than 2.5 hours a day. And in this age group, those watching 2.5 to 4.9 hours of television daily are more than three times more likely to develop a fatal blood clot than those watching less.

The research, funded by the Japanese government, looked at 36,007 men and 50,017 women aged between 40 and 79. Participants reported how much television they watched each day and were then followed for 18 years as part of the Japanese Collaborative Cohort Study. During the course of the study, there were 59 deaths from pulmonary embolism. 

The risks of watching television were calculated after adjusting for other factors such as a history of hypertension or diabetes, smoking, drinking, and body mass index.

“We have known about the relationship between prolonged sitting and pulmonary embolism for some time, but this is the first time a direct link between prolonged television watching and fatal pulmonary embolism has been shown,” said Dr Toru Shirakawa, public health research fellow in the Department of Social Medicine at Osaka University in Japan, who led the research.

A long-haul flight in an economy-class seat is a well-known cause of pulmonary embolism, according to Dr Shirakawa, “But the public health concern is that in general people are more likely to watch many hours of television than taking long-haul flights.” He added: “To prevent the occurrence of pulmonary embolism, we recommend the same preventive behaviour used against economy-class syndrome. That is, take a break, stand up, and walk around during the television viewing. Drinking water for preventing dehydration is also important.”

The findings mean that the average British pensioner is at risk. People aged over 65 watch more television than any other age group, at five hours and 40 minutes a day, according to Ofcom. And it’s not just pensioners who would fall into the risk category, for the average Briton watches three hours and 40 minutes a day.

Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “While we wouldn’t advocate a public health warning for watching television, people who spend many hours in front of the TV should consider how this might be impacting their heart health.” He added: “In addition to these findings, sedentary behaviour and physical inactivity both increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, so it’s important to take breaks and keep active in bursts of at least 10 minutes or more.”

And Professor Stephen Spiro, honorary medical adviser at the British Lung Foundation, said: “Staying seated for hours without moving in front of a television or a computer can be potentially dangerous – the same goes for long car journeys and flights. The message people should take from this is that if you are sitting still for more than two hours, get up and walk about for 10 minutes and get your circulation moving again.”