Study Finds That Alzheimer’s Portrayal in ‘This Is Us’ Positively Impacted Viewers

NBC’s “This Is Us” became one of the network’s more popular shows, with millions of viewers religiously tuning in to follow the decades-long story of the Pearson family. One of the storylines revolved around matriarch Rebecca Pearson’s journey with Alzheimer’s. A new study finds this aspect of the show may have been helpful for families also dealing with such a diagnosis.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health investigated the show’s impact through a survey and focus group. Those quizzed said they thought the storyline reduced the stigma associated with Alzheimer’s and helped encourage families to make plans for aging. The researchers believe this shows that the entertainment industry can work with public health agencies to help tackle difficult health topics.

Dr. Beth Hoffman, lead author and postdoctoral associate in Pitt Public Health’s Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences, says, “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. Our findings demonstrate that the entertainment industry need not shy away from complex topics. 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.”

The Alzheimer’s story was written with input from Hollywood, Health & Society, a program that has provided free information to TV writers on health, safety, and security for more than 20 years. Other shows they’ve worked with include “Grey’s Anatomy,” “General Hospital,” “ER,” and “Scrubs.” In the case of “This Is Us,” there were script reviews, chats with writers, and Alzheimer’s experts working with actress Mandy Moore, who played Rebecca Pearson. The goal was to ensure that Alzheimer’s was portrayed accurately and realistically.

To gauge how this work impacted viewers, the team in Pittsburgh conducted an online survey involving more than 700 viewers after the last episode of season four. They then followed up with a focus group involving 12 of the participants. Some of the questions revolved around a plot point, when brothers Randall and Kevin disagreed on whether their mother Rebecca should undergo an Alzheimer’s clinical trial across the country, with Randall believing she should do so and Kevin believing otherwise.

The team says survey respondents – more than 43% of whom had a loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s – identified with both characters and understood where they were each coming from. Further, while they felt strongly that medical research was important, respondents believed a decision came down to the patient themselves. The storyline may have also gotten people to think about their own families, with participants saying that the on-screen discussion may lead to important discussions on advanced care planning off screen.

The experts involved said they were happy to see this sort of impact.

Kate Langrall Folb, director of Hollywood, Health & Society, says, “We were honored to work with ‘This Is Us’ to inform this storyline and many others throughout the show’s six-year run. 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.”

The research team says clips from this show could be used in public health campaigns to get people to talk with loved ones about their care plans as they age. They add that their findings could also encourage other productions to work with health experts to tell relatable stories that can help caregivers and the loved ones of Alzheimer’s patients.

To read more from the study, you can find it in the Journal of Health Communications.

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