Seeing Alzheimer’s as a social problem

The cover story in the current issue of Time is about Alzheimer’s research. The main story is set up in a typical way: the condition affects a lot of people and yet research into a cure is underfunded. What is interesting is that Time employs two statistics that suggest the cover story should really be about how people could make Alzheimer’s a social problem worthy of more attention.

The first statistic is an actual dollar amount: one expert says $500 million a year is spent on researching Alzheimer’s while $1 billion is spent on heart disease, and $5.6 billion on cancer. The second measure concerns public perception: 48% of Americans think “a great deal or some progress has been made in curing” the disease while 81% say the same about heart disease and 74% say the same about cancer. With these two statistics, Time suggests Alzheimer’s has a certain public image: it doesn’t attract the same kind of research dollars as other diseases and the public is pretty pessimistic about progress.

While the rest of the story concerns itself with the medical and scientific advances, perhaps it should be about how the public could be convinced that the disease deserves more attention. Some ways the public image could be enhanced: it needs more fund-raisers, more celebrity supporters, more support for research from public officials, and more stories that demonstrate how many people are affected by Alzheimer’s. Look at the public image of other conditions: diseases like breast cancer (where are those “edgy” Facebook campaigns for Alzheimer’s?) have effectively been cast as critical social problems that everyone should care about.

Perhaps this cover story is itself intended to help raise the profile of Alzheimer’s. While real medical progress is the true goal and it is what will ultimately benefit people, Alzheimer’s as a social problem is another important issue to be considered.

How diseases become a social problem

NPR explores how certain diseases, such as cancer, particularly breast cancer, turn from a medical condition that no one talked about to a prominent social cause. Some of the factors, according to the article, that helped cancer become a visible concern:

[T]he women’s health movement, the rise of information technology and a shift in the medical culture itself away from a purely hierarchical system in which doctors were always assumed to know best…

A lot of illness-awareness promotion, though, stems from the way AIDS patients responded to the rise of that disease…The tropes developed with AIDS — clothing accessories such as ribbons, displays of commemorative quilts, marches on Washington — have all since been adopted by groups concerned with other conditions.

How certain issues (and not others) become social problems is often a fascinating tale. What one time period and culture sees as problematic is not an issue for the same culture in a later period – Prohibition would be a great example. There is often a complicated process that takes place by which the problem is brought to the attention of the public and then people become convinced it is a cause that requires their action.