Alan Alda has Parkinson’s Disease: What does this mean for public health?

Alan Alda on M*A*S*H
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Alan Alda on M*A*S*H

Alan Alda on M*A*S*H

As Hawkeye on the classic television show M*A*S*H, Alan Alda played a grumpy but lovable army doctor who could repair even the most horrific injuries. Now, though, Alda is facing a medical condition that cannot currently be fixed. The actor announced on July 31 that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease more than three years ago.

Appearing on CBS This Morning, Alda revealed that after reading one of Jane Brody’s columns for the New York Times, he suspected he might be in the early stages of the disease and asked his doctor for a diagnostic test. His intuition was correct, and ever since his diagnosis, Alda has taken advantage of research on staving off more serious symptoms of the disease through continued exercise and rhythmic movement.

Alda has a right to his privacy. Indeed, he kept the news to himself and his family for the past three years. However, a chain of events occurred once he chose to announce his Parkinson’s diagnosis that research suggests could have important ripple effects on public health.

Research that I and others have conducted shows that when celebrities make announcements about their own illnesses or they die from a particular disease, the public pays a lot of attention to the media coverage generated by these events.

In a survey conducted shortly after Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs died from pancreatic cancer, we found that more than one third (36%) of our sample sought out more information about how Steve Jobs died or his disease and that 7% sought information specifically about pancreatic cancer. While 7% may not seem like much, when multiplied across the population it could mean that millions of individuals would have been educating themselves about this type of cancer. Other researchers have found similar outcomes by analyzing Google searches and finding increased numbers of searchers for words related to cancer after media coverage of celebrity cancer diagnoses.

Our survey also found that people talked to others about pancreatic cancer after Jobs’ death from the disease, and that they were especially likely to do so if they felt emotional about learning the news. We know that health information spread across one’s social networks can help not only provide knowledge but also encourage social support that is crucial in instigating and maintaining many health-related behaviors. Moreover, I have found that reading about a celebrity illness motivates people to not only seek information and talk about it, but to also take action to protect their own health. The communication behaviors that take place after a celebrity illness or death (information seeking and talking to others) seem to help people think through about their own health and decide to take some type of action.

One more point from communication research: my work suggests that the way the public figure frames his or her condition will shape how fearful or hopeful the audience feels. In an experiment, I found that when people read a news article where a celebrity talked about a medical diagnosis such that they focused on the positive outcomes that could come from taking care of one’s health, readers felt more hopeful. Conversely, if participants read a news story where a celebrity focused on the scarier aspects of receiving a diagnosis, the readers themselves experienced more fear. This difference between hope and fear matters because, while fear can motivate attention, hope can sustain effort toward health goals and has been associated with positive changes in health behavior. And Alda was notably hopeful in his announcement of his diagnosis, with the hosts even noting how optimistic he was. This presentation of his disease may have additional benefits for providing hope to the 1 million Americans already diagnosed with the condition, too.

In short, previous findings suggest that Alda’s announcement about Parkinson’s will draw attention to the chronic, debilitating disease. At least some people who learn about Alda’s condition via media coverage will spend some time seeking information about it, and many will talk to others about the disease, potentially leading them to consult with healthcare providers, too. Moreover, Alda’s optimistic but realistic discussion of his condition may provide just the right combination of awareness and inspiration to motivate people to take their health into their own hands while also advocating for additional funding for Parkinson’s research.

Alda is more than a celebrity with a Parkinson’s diagnosis, though. He has devoted a significant portion of his career to finding ways to better communicate issues of science and medicine to the public. He hosted the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers and founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Currently, Alda hosts a podcast called Clear & Vivid where he promotes (no surprise) clear and vivid descriptions of all types of science, but particularly focuses on ways that doctors and other healthcare providers can better communicate with patients. His efforts to educate the public, policy makers, and scientists about the importance of clear communication in these domains is likely to have beneficial effects for public health for years to come.

And finally, let’s not forget how Alda himself came to wonder if he might have Parkinson’s disease. He read a news article about the topic and made the connection to his own experiences in life. By educating the public about diseases, diagnostic tools, and potential remedies or ways to alleviate medical conditions, quality health journalism does more than inform—it can improve quality of life and even save lives. When the media cover issues related to health and science in (as Alda would endorse) clear and vivid ways, we all can benefit.