War, Cocktails, and Deadly Snails - 5 Things the Media Get Wrong About Dementia
The headlines and article extracts below come from five of the UK’s leading national newspapers. Between them they have over 5 million readers and contribute greatly to the national discourse on an array of topics. As such, their views and the way they present topics matter. Unfortunately, as seen in the examples below, much of the media has a habit of misconstruing or misrepresenting dementia within their coverage. We consider why this is problematic and what needs to change.
1. To Drink or Not to Drink?
“Drinking alcohol could help you reach 85 without getting dementia”, reads the Daily Express. A glass of wine a day “cuts the risk of dementia”, suggests the Daily Telegraph. Whilst the Daily Mail demands “Bring back cocktail hour… to beat Alzheimer’s.”
Clearly, this is something that the editors believe we, the great British public, can get on board with. Except, the same papers have elsewhere, within short periods of time, warned of an approaching alcohol fuelled “epidemic of brain damage", and urged “less alcohol to curb dementia”. So, which angle should be believed? At Lingo Flamingo we run many of our language classes with those who have alcohol-related brain damage and alcohol-related dementia, so we are well aware that the truth, of course, likely lies in moderation and in sound medical advice.
Yet, the wider problem here is that this style of reporting is purposely exaggerated to boost sales. Whilst the headlines might have us reaching for the shandy at the back of the cupboard, the body of text will likely contain heavy qualifiers to describe the "breakthrough" (even if those qualifiers fail to match the standards contained with the original research)
2. We’re at war, apparently.
“New hope in the war against dementia.” “Experts reveal key ways to fight the disease". “New battle to cure dementia”. “Aspirin wards off dementia”.
These are just some of the headlines that have become the standard way of reporting dementia. Why might such language be problematic? Well, consider it firstly from the point of view of the diagnosed individual. With the war-like metaphors, they may end up feeling like they are the ones doing the fighting, and, consequently, that any cognitive decline, or perceived familial burden, is their own fault. Secondly, in understanding themself to be a "victim" in a “war” creates a fearsome story with a tragic trajectory where they are the central character, doomed to a slow, passive decline. It reaffirms the fears surrounding dementia, rather than promoting the empathy it deserves.
Instead of using such language, and creating a “war” against a personified disease that “steals the selfhood” of our loved ones, the media should begin to use more words like integrity, dignity, and personhood, and refer to those who are cognitively ageing with words like balance, quality of life, and prevention. Such a move would lead us away from notions that an individual’s brain is a battlefield, and towards broader a consideration of health that respects the frailty and limits of human life, and places greater emphasis on preventing and caring for cognitive loss rather than “fixing” it.
3. Some Foods are Better than Others.
A healthy, balanced diet with plenty of variety is undoubtedly vital to maintaining good health. Besides this almost self-evident fact, it is unlikely that any single food is key to a healthy life, nor is any particular food indispensable when it comes to a healthy brain. Despite this, one could be forgiven for believing that “a handful of mushrooms”, “consuming almonds for lunch” or "eating curry" could, in itself, lead to a healthy brain and “stave off dementia”. Indeed, if relying solely on the printed press one might justifiably rush off and fill their shopping trolleys with aubergines, brussel sprouts, marmite, red peppers, green tea, chocolate, coconut oil, avocados…
Much like the reporting on alcohol, this habit of stating that this or that product is a “cure” or “prevents” dementia purposely bends the truth and plays on the fears of older readers.
4. Over-Reliance on Biomedical Developments.
“New dementia breakthrough.” “Eye test that spots dementia 20 years in advance.” “Dementia MIRACLE treatment from DEADLY snails." “Alzheimer’s revolution.” “New scan will spot dementia.”
The increase in numbers of those living with dementia is not confined to any one geographic location. It is a worldwide issue affecting individuals in every continent, country and culture. As such, a phenomenal amount of time, effort, and resources are plowed into gaining a better understanding of the disease around the world each year. This quest has lead to a greater understanding of the condition in recent years. However, given the modest developments in creating concrete treatment or cures, the printed media should perhaps display more prudence when commenting on “promising” or “miracle” medicines said to “slash your risk of dementia”.
What’s more, in focusing all their attention solely on pharmaceutical developments they are detracting attention from social and alternative therapies that can improve the quality of life for those with dementia. Indeed, this focus on medical approaches in the media contributes to a society where the dynamic has shifted away from caring for an ageing patient, towards drugs as the primary guarantor of well-being. As such, it is not uncommon for someone diagnosed with dementia to leave a GP’s surgery with little more than a prescription and a feeling of dread, knowing little about the options available for effective dementia care, and being ill-informed as to what's available to ensure that there is a life after diagnosis.
In the future then, the media would do well to devote less space to an allusive “fix” and to provide more coverage of care, prevention, and non-pharmaceutical, evidence-based approaches to improving the lives of those with dementia. In focusing on non-medical, humanistic interventions, the narrative surrounding dementia could well change in a way that catalyses a well-spring of energy and compassion that surpasses the cumulative effect of pharmaceutical pills. Indeed, perhaps by changing the focus of our attention, we, as a society and as individuals, will see those with dementia not as diseased victims, but as human beings representing the human condition, offering us the opportunity to improve our non-verbal communication skills, our caregiving skills, and our sense of the present.
5. Correlation or Causation?
"Dementia may have been caused by the Second World War." "NAGGING CAN KILL... Rowing with your partner risks dementia." "Keeping your own teeth lessens the risk.""Having shorter arms and legs raises risk of dementia."
Just because two things occur together, or appear interlinked, does not mean they are caused by one another. Consider the following; those countries that consume the most chocolate also tend to be awarded the greatest number of Nobel prizes. Does eating chocolate therefore make you more likely to be the next Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein or Martin Luther King? Of course not. Rather, chocolate is a proxy variable for a variety of complex phenomena such as wealth, culture and geography. Chocolate consumption is merely correlated to the number of Nobel prize winners….
Anyway, differentiating between causation and correlation is at the heart of the scientific method and the accumulation of knowledge. And whilst the original scientists researching dementia are likely to have taken care in their reporting of research into the causes and potential treatments of dementia, the British media are less mindful in their approach, as seen in the headlines above. Some of the examples provided are almost absurd in scope, showing once against the calculated efforts to misconstrue research, distort the truth, and play on fears in order to sell papers.