Hit drama ‘This Is Us’ changed how the world talks about Alzheimer’s for the better

PITTSBURGH — “This Is Us” isn’t just a television hit with its fans, it’s also changing how the world thinks about certain medical conditions. Although health experts often see watching TV as a negative, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh found how the right storyline can be a force for positive change in the real world.

Study authors report the award-winning drama’s Alzheimer’s storyline brought the subject of dementia and how it can impact an entire family into millions of homes. This is helping to reduce the stigma surrounding dementia in general and promotes more family discussions about plans for the elderly, according to the team.

This project is the first ever to analyze how an Alzheimer’s storyline on TV may or may not influence viewers’ beliefs and perceptions in the real world. Study authors used both surveys and focus groups to conduct their research.

The results suggest that entertaining storylines really do have the power to make a difference in terms of how people perceive dementia and those affected by memory-robbing condition. These findings also highlight the importance of partnerships between public health agencies and the entertainment industry; continued collaboration can ensure more storylines and narratives address various health issues in a positive way.

“Given that the average U.S. adult spends about 2,000 hours watching primetime television per year, but only an hour with a health care professional, it’s critical for clinicians and public health professionals to understand how television narratives impact health decisions,” says lead study author Beth Hoffman, Ph.D., M.P.H., a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences at Pitt Public Health, in a university release.

“Our findings demonstrate that the entertainment industry need not shy away from complex topics,” the researcher adds. “About 9 million U.S. adults have lived experience with Alzheimer’s disease and caregiving, and our work found that the storyline on ‘This Is Us’ helped them feel seen.”

Meet the organization helping Hollywood get stories right

“This Is Us” focuses on the fictional Pearson family, with a particular emphasis on the mother, Rebecca, and her triplets, Kate, Kevin, and Randall. During the fourth season, Rebecca starts experiencing memory decline and is diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment likely due to Alzheimer’s disease. Meanwhile, Kevin and Randall continually disagree over Randall’s insistence that Rebecca move across the country to take part in a clinical trial for people with the disease.

That storyline was put together in collaboration with Hollywood, Health & Society, a University of Southern California program that has served as a free resource to the entertainment industry when it comes to getting the facts right regarding storylines on health, safety, and security for over 20 years.

Study authors say the writers of “This Is Us” met regularly with Hollywood, Health & Society over the course of the show to ensure the dementia storyline remained accurate and authentic. More specifically, this entailed writers’ room briefings, script reviews, and even conversations between actress Mandy Moore, who played Rebecca, and Alzheimer’s disease experts.

“We were honored to work with ‘This Is Us’ to inform this storyline and many others throughout the show’s six-year run,” comments Kate Langrall Folb, M.Ed., director of Hollywood, Health & Society. “We know from decades of research that viewers learn from what they see on TV. That’s why it’s so essential for shows to accurately portray the complexities of living with and caring for those affected by diseases like Alzheimer’s.”

How did the story change society?

After the show’s fourth season finale, researchers administered an online survey to more than 700 viewers and then followed up with focus groups featuring a dozen of those participants. Put together by the study’s senior author, Jessica Burke, Ph.D., this “mixed methods” approach allowed the research team to better grasp and interpret the raw numerical data originally gathered via the surveys.

Survey responses indicated that viewers strongly identified with both Randall and Kevin, suggesting viewers could understand both characters’ motivations and opinions regarding the treatment and care of someone with Alzheimer’s disease. Respondents also displayed high levels of support for medical research.

However, most respondents also signaled a desire to respect the decision of the family member with dementia on whether to participate in a clinical trial. It’s worth noting that over 43 percent of survey participants had a friend or close relative who has been diagnosed with some form of dementia.

The focus groups added more context to the findings. For instance, viewers especially empathized with Randall’s belief that a clinical trial would save Rebecca’s life, but they also understood this was an unlikely, overly optimistic outcome. Ultimately, focus group members supported Kevin’s desire not to overrule Rebecca’s decision about participating. Importantly, respondents also shared that the on-screen conflict between Kevin and Randall over Rebecca’s care would motivate them to hold family discussions about advanced care planning for their own loved ones.

“Obviously it is rewarding to hear that our show has had a positive influence on perception and understanding of Alzheimer’s disease,” concludes Dan Fogelman, creator, showrunner, and writer of “This Is Us.”

“Our incredible writers took great care to get the details right here, as multiple members of our staff had been directly touched by the disease. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that we couldn’t have attacked the storyline without help from Hollywood, Health & Society, a guiding force with any medical-based research we needed.”

The study is published in the Journal of Health Communication.

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