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By Mark Butler

December 7th, 2014

Dementia in the Media –Trends in 2014

DIAMetric reflects from time to time on the way dementia is framed in the media.  One test we use is simply to look at the tone and content of stories in the national press.

In 2013 our look at The Independent gave us a clear set of messages:

  • Dementia is an impending and inevitable apocalypse
  • Dementia can be combatted by simple measures we can take
  • Care Homes and hospitals are places of regular abuse, corruption and neglect
  • Just about anything can increase your chance of succumbing to dementia
  • Miracle cures for dementia are on the way
  • Celebrities struggle like the rest of us with dementia as a devastating disease
  • Dignified suicide is a blissful and necessary release from dementia


In 2014 we took a deep breath and plunged into a full year of the Express Online.

The headlines? All the same messages are present and correct.  But the balance seems to have shifted.

There is much less on “inevitable apocalypse” and “shameful neglect” stories but acres more on “you can cut the risk” features.  The famed Mediterranean diet got a good airing.  “Research” and “experts” were called upon to supply the meat of the message.  When hitched to exercise (“Taking a brisk walk can “grow brain back””) we have all been told what we need to do. Job done.

Good News?

This may sound like a positive move, but the media still struggle to connect people to a realistic framing of dementia and the practical advice and support that they need today.  Dementia is both news and features. In the Express it got a lot of feature coverage which makes the absences more alarming. It is not just the framing but what is missing in the coverage which continues to shape (and distort) public understanding.  The odd article about “living in the moment”, or a one-off set of helpful hints, dragged from a book, seem like mere tokens.

The underlying thrust is pernicious.  Editorial comment about “our obligations to act” for “victims” “suffering” cannot disguise an attempt to shift the blame for dementia onto the individuals (yes dementia can be prevented if only you do the right things). The idea of burden is shifting right-wards from a shared social responsibility to something where the individual can be seen to be partly to blame.  Now this does require corrective action doesn’t it, but by whom exactly?

In Other News

This being the Express greedy GPs and celebrities also featured big across the year.  The trajectory for GPs was short and sweet.  In October they were grabbing the £55 “bounty” for every diagnosis made, so there was much celebration as this was snatched back by the Government in November.

Celebrities endorsed, pondered and suffered as ever – Angus Young from AC/DC “struggled to the end”; “Sally Magnusson’s mum’s battled”; Hazel Blears MP stood down to care for mother; Prunella Scales gamely announced “I’ll battle Alzheimer’s and work till I drop”; Patricia Hodge revealed her “heartbreak”; Glen Campbell ended up “in home for professional Alzheimer’s Care” and pools-winner Viv Nicholson made her final headlines.

Cures and more cures

Miracle cures which made it through this year include “breakthrough blood test”; “Heart statin drugs could slash risk of dementia by a quarter”; “protein offers new hope”; “sleep is the secret weapon in battle against dementia”; “sight and smell tests could detect Alzheimer’s”; superfruit pomegranate and coconuts and “a spicy diet”.  None of these really do much than fill space.  Do they actually mislead?  Dementia is all part of the entertainment business after all.

Framing in 2015

Is it enough just to be alive to the way the media frames things?  Not if you believe the media define and spread a certain type of public fear around dementia whilst at the same time promoting a false sense of hope.  They are conflicted and partial and this matters 

The tone largely remains that cheery, slightly unreal public health voice saved up for Big Disease issues – part Ministry of Information, part AIDS, part Mrs Beeton.  This outdated vaguely comforting and deeply ineffective should not deceive us.  More and better is needed from the press if people with dementia are to be well served now and in the future.

In 2015 DIAMetric will explore what next for the media – what can be done to change things around here?

My favourite headline of the year:  “Newspaper round up:  Madeleine McCann, Dementia and North Korea” – what more does a reader need?

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