Media Portrayal of Dementia Could be Impacting Those Living with the Illness, says Professor of Psychology

Back to news listings

Representations of dementia in the media could be having a negative impact on those living with the illness, according to a leading psychologist.

Phrases such as “worse than death” and “ticking time bomb”, used by newspapers when describing dementia, create fear and anxiety, says Professor Elizabeth Peel, of the University of Worcester.

In addition, the media’s use of “faddy avoidance tactics”, such as telling people to complete a crossword a day to stave off the on-set of dementia, can create a feeling of self-blame.

Professor Peel studied hundreds of UK national newspapers, looking at their depiction of dementia and Alzheimer’s, over a 12 month period. She then interviewed a number of people who care for someone living with dementia to look at their perception of the media’s portrayal of the illness.

“A panic-blame framework was evident in much of the print media coverage,” she said. “Dementia was represented in catastrophic terms, such as a “tsunami” and “worse than death”, juxtaposed with coverage of individualistic behavioural change and lifestyle recommendations to “stave off” the condition.”

More than 800,000 people in the UK are estimated to have some form of dementia, and projections suggest that by 2021 more than 1 million people will be living with the illness.

The economic cost to the National Health Service, local authorities and families, is estimated at £23 billion a year; more than cancer and heart disease combined. In 2009, the Government launched its National Dementia Strategy, which has brought the illness to the top of the news agenda.

“The way the media portrays dementia is very important, particularly for those living with the illness,” Professor Peel said. “Choice of words and tone can have a huge impact.”

One of the carers interviewed by Professor Peel said: “…there’s an implication that it’s somehow your fault if you get dementia because you’re not being active enough or doing the crossword…”

“There is an emerging level of stigmatisation of people living with dementia,” Professor Peel said. “While individualised health messages may have valence for the ‘worried well’, the impact on those already diagnosed with a dementia – especially vascular dementia – and their families, may be detrimental.”

Professor Peel has been working with the University of Worcester’s Association for Dementia Studies, which uses research, education and scholarship to make a substantial contribution to building evidence-based practical ways of working with people living with dementia and their families, enabling them to live well.

Professor Peel’s study is published in full in the Sociology of Health & Illness Journal and can be found at