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‘This Is Us’ Reduced Dementia Stigma

Researchers find NBC hit show encouraged family discussions on aging

The dementia story line on the This Is Us tv show helped open up conversation about the condition.
A scene from the tv show This Is Us. Pictured: (left to right) Justin Hartley as Kevin, Sterling K. Brown as Randall, Mandy Moore as Rebecca
2022 NBCUniversal Media, LLC

As the millions of faithful viewers of NBC’s hit drama This Is Us know, Season 4 finds family matriarch Rebecca Pearson (Mandy Moore) given a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s that is met with conflicting views among family members over the type of care she should receive.

It’s a compelling storyline, and one that researchers found resonated with viewers who say it helped reduce stigma surrounding dementia and encouraged families to discuss caregiving plans for aging relatives.​​ 

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“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,” lead study author Beth Hoffman, a postdoctoral associate at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, said in a statement.

The study, published in the Journal of Health Communication, suggests that television programming can be a “promising avenue” for raising “awareness of the importance of advanced care planning related to aging.” The researchers noted that about 12 million viewers watched the This Is Us storyline.

“Given that the average U.S. adult spends approximately 2,000 hours per year watching prime-time television, it may be valuable for clinicians and public health professionals to develop collaborative partnerships with the entertainment industry that leverage this vast exposure to promote health,” they wrote.

Behind the NBC storyline

The Season 4 storyline was not simply dreamed up by script writers for This Is Us — rather it was done in consultation with Hollywood, Health & Society, a program of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School Norman Lear Center that says it “provides the entertainment industry with accurate and up-to-date information for storylines on health, safety and security.”

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As the storyline unfolds, Rebecca is diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, likely due to Alzheimer’s disease, after experiencing memory decline. The diagnosis leads to a clash between two of her adult children regarding caregiving: Randall (Sterling K. Brown) wants Rebecca to move cross-country to participate in a clinical trial for people with Alzheimer’s disease, while Kevin (Justin Hartley) thinks it best to respect his mother’s wishes to remain close to family.

Over the course of three seasons, show writers met regularly with Hollywood, Health & Society consultants to ensure the topic was portrayed accurately and authentically. This included writers’ room briefings, script reviews and conversations between actress Moore and Alzheimer’s disease experts, according to a press release.

“We were honored to work with This Is Us to inform this storyline and many others throughout the show’s six-year run,” Hollywood, Health & Society Director Kate Langrall Folb said in a statement. “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.”

Dan Fogelman, creator, showrunner and writer of the family drama, said in a statement that it was rewarding to hear that they had a positive influence on how viewers perceive and understand Alzheimer’s disease.

What the study did

Following the season finale, researchers surveyed more than 700 This Is Us viewers and did four hour-long focus groups with a small subset of viewers (most were white women 50 and older). The online survey and focus group sessions (done using Zoom) were designed to analyze “perceptions of the storyline” and “its influence on viewer behavioral intent toward planning for aging and discussing plans for aging with family.”

“Our findings demonstrate that the entertainment industry need not shy away from complex topics,” Hoffman said.

A surprising finding from the focus groups was the potential for the storyline to reduce stigma surrounding dementia, something that focus group participants felt could be beneficial to people without personal experience with the illness. As a 62-year-old woman in the group said: “I think it encourages family discussion, and it takes away some of the [stigma] of even saying the word Alzheimer’s.”

As to the This Is Us characters, focus group members echoed survey findings that found understanding and support for both Kevin’s realistic approach and Randall’s optimistic position. Most participants noted they were “more like Randall” and related to his insistence on learning more about his mother’s condition. However, they were not inclined to override a loved one’s decision about participating in a clinical trial.

“With your parent ... part of you wants to say, ‘This is going to help.’ But the other part of you goes, ‘No, there is no way to come out of this.’ So, I think that’s really just human nature to have that dichotomy in your brain about which way is the best way to go,” said a 54-year-old woman in the focus group.

Focus group members also felt that it was realistic for Rebecca and her second husband, Miguel Rivas (Jon Huertas), to deny the severity of her symptoms. They hoped the storyline would make viewers more willing to admit a problem and seek medical care earlier. “I actually think the show will ... open the eyes to people that maybe don’t know enough to recognize that those are the early signs of Alzheimer’s,” said a 55-year-old man in the focus group.

The show, which recently completed its sixth and final season, is streaming on Peacock.