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Media underrepresents cancer risk in older adults

Older adults are underrepresented in the media’s coverage of cancer and cancer experiences, researchers have found. This is despite over three quarters of all cancers in the UK being diagnosed in those aged over 60.

According to research led by the University of Glasgow and funded by Cancer Research UK, articles featuring personal cancer stories more frequently focus on younger people.

The research, ‘Mass media and risk factors for cancer: the under-representation of age’ was published this month [26 April] in BMC Public Health. It found that only 15% of non-celebrity cancer stories in the media were about people over 60. Similarly, 64% of personal stories describing celebrities with cancer were typically aged under 60.

The study examined and analysed 800 newspaper articles about the four most common cancers – breast, prostate, lung and colorectal – published within eight UK national newspapers from 2003-2004 and 2013-2014 to provide longitudinal comparative snapshots.

In the UK, the incidence of each of the ‘top four’ cancers is strongly correlated with increasing age, with a third of all cancers diagnosed in those over 75. However, the study found age was mentioned as an associated risk factor in only 12% of all articles examined, and discussed in just 2.5% of them.

Commenting on the findings, lead author Dr Sara Macdonald, senior lecturer in primary care at the University of Glasgow, said: “Age is a risk factor for cancer, yet we know older people commonly underestimate this risk, are less likely to be aware of the early symptoms, and are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer at a late stage.”

She said the findings were “concerning because we know the media are a key influence on the public’s understanding and awareness of health issues, including cancer risk”.

As older adults are underrepresented in cancer stories, they may miss out on information which could mobilise them to take up screening or seek help,” she said.

The study also found the proportion of articles that mentioned age as a risk factor decreased significantly by 14% in articles about breast cancer, which was the most common focus of articles overall (64.3%). This is despite lung cancer being responsible for the largest proportion of deaths.

Age was most frequently reported in relation to prostate cancer and least often in articles about lung cancer. Family history and genetics together featured as the most common risk factors, with family history most commonly associated with breast cancer, diet with bowel cancer, and smoking with lung cancer.

Dr Macdonald said: “Our study found that risk more generally received little attention. And yet some risk factors received undue emphasis, the most common being family history for breast cancer, despite its accounting for fewer than 5% of all breast cancers.”

She said the overall picture of cancer amongst older adults “could be improved”.

We hope our findings contribute to informing the development of future cancer awareness campaigns and media guidelines, as it’s important for older adults to appreciate their risk and speak to their GP when they have concerns about new changes or symptoms.”

Victoria Steven, Cancer Research UK spokesperson in Scotland, said raising awareness of the different factors that increase people’s risk of cancer was “crucial if we are to achieve our goal of preventing more cancers, diagnosing the disease early, and treating it more successfully”.

She added it was “vital that people understand that their risk of cancer increases as they get older”, and that “there are always improvements to be made in the way that health messages can be communicated, and research like this can help to identify how to do this”.