Kevan Christie: Don't let ageism in the media affect your health

Research that found older adults with cancer are largely under-represented in the media came as no surprise to journalists.

Cancer is much more likely to affect people over the age of 60 (Picture: PA)

However, the study, led by the University of Glasgow and funded by Cancer Research UK, was still of great interest in terms of forcing us to examine why this is the case.

The research revealed that only 15 per cent of non-celebrity cancer stories in the media were about people over 60. Similarly, 64 per cent of personal stories describing celebrities with cancer typically involved younger individuals.

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There’s no doubt that people like reading about celebrities and – as the study illustrated with the cases of Jade Goody, who died aged 27 from cervical cancer, and Kylie Minogue who survived breast cancer – awareness of the warning signs and risks can be raised, helping to increase the uptake of screening.

This ageism by stealth and the perceived social stratification of illness is not confined to cancer and has come to encompass nearly all medical conditions.

In fact, many of us will associate an illness with a particular celebrity or notable figure who has the misfortune of having it.

For instance, mention motor neurone disease (MND) in this country and people will often reference high-profile cases like rugby legend Doddie Weir, ex-Rangers star Fernando Ricksen or the late theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking.

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In America, MND is known as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the New York Yankees baseball star who was struck down with the illness.

This is no bad thing as, again, it raises awareness of the condition in question, helps with fundraising and provides charities with a figurehead for their cause. It also backs up the findings of the study.

So, why do the media favour younger people when it comes to reporting on health?

There are a few factors at play here which are central to the way in which the news agenda is set.

We tend to focus on the extreme, the extraordinary and are constantly looking for a ‘good line’ or ‘angle’ to a story.

The health charities know this and will push the best case studies, often involving younger people, along with headline-grabbing statistics that sometimes reflect the scale of a problem in purely Scottish terms.

A huge ‘what if that were to happen to me’ factor is also at play here. This means a story about a child having a rare life-threatening disorder like the recent heartbreaking case of Alfie Evans is always likely to garner a lot of coverage, given its resonance with parents and the moral questions raised. This is an extreme example, but stories about younger adults ‘struck down’ in their prime are more likely to stir emotions in readers than ones about people over 60 getting cancer. This seems harsh but gets to the heart of the study’s findings. The perception exists that although terminal illness is tragic, it is somehow less tragic when that person has reached a certain age and it’s taken for granted that they’ve seen a bit of life.

Outwith case studies, the drama that’s played out in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries every day, affecting the over-60s age group, often in terms of life-changing events, does not receive the coverage it deserves.

However, as the recent raft of television programmes featuring hospitals and GP surgeries shows, the public has a huge appetite for all things health-related regardless of age.