Online news media significantly influences the public’s understanding of aging. This is particularly true of the cognitive aspects of aging, as over half of Americans report that they learn about cognitive health via news media. What, then, are people hearing about cognitive aging? A recent study analyzed online messaging about cognitive health, focusing on the top three US cable news websites. The study sought out how cognition was portrayed as an aging issue, and researchers found a significant gap between actual research findings and what the media reported.
The most popular topic was cognitive functioning, which was the focus of over one-third of the articles. These articles concentrated on subjects such as general cognitive functioning, or specific cognitive functions such as memory or attention. About 30 percent focused on a specific form of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, while about 16 percent were about unspecified dementia. Almost 30 percent of the articles focused on treatments for dementia, while a slightly smaller proportion of articles focused on prevention of cognitive decline or on general health maintenance.
The researchers found significant differences between articles on cognition that specifically targeted older adults—these more frequently included information on prevention or about health maintenance, and were less likely to talk about treatment or about coping with cognitive decline. In addition, articles targeting older adults were more likely to discuss cognition in terms of maintaining health, while those targeting younger readers were more likely to frame cognitive change as resulting from illness.
The researchers also analyzed the metaphors used to discuss cognition, which included describing the brain as a “muscle,” a “sponge,” or as territory to be defended. These are not necessarily misleading metaphors (depending on which aspect of cognitive function is being discussed) but most such articles did not include adequate definitions of the concepts being discussed nor references to more thorough information. Further, none of the articles on cognition that targeted older adult readers discussed head injuries, despite the importance of falls prevention and other injury prevention for maintaining cognitive health.
In conclusion, findings indicated that the depiction of the brain and cognition on US cable news websites is a cause for concern in some areas, particularly in terms of science and health literacy, but is also an area of opportunity. Researchers should do more to explain their findings to a general audience, and media outlets should do more to educate the public on general science and health literacy. The public interest in cognition and aging gives incentive for researchers to present their findings in language that readers can understand and provides an opportunity for researchers and journalists to improve the scientific and health literacy of readers.
Vandenberg AE, Price AE. How Do Top Cable News Websites Portray Cognition as an Aging Issue? The Gerontologist. 2011. [E-pub ahead of print].