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An Important Advantage for Health Education: Deaths of Public Figures

First Posted: Apr 21, 2014 08:03 PM EDT

Death is an inevitable aspect of life. However, it's a big contributor to science and medicine, as shown in a recent Indiana University study that found the deaths of public figures help make more people aware and knowledgeable of specific diseases.

The study, "Public Reaction to the Death of Steve Jobs: Implications for Cancer Communication," was published in the Journal of Health Communication and was coauthored by Jessica Gall Myrick, Seth M. Noar, Jessica Fitts Willoughby, and Jennifer Brown. Their results suggest that health communicators should take advantage of the short window of opportunity after a public figure passes away due to a disease.

1,400 male and female adults were surveyed about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and his death in 2011. Jobs passed away due to respiratory arrest caused by a pancreas neuroendocrine tumor. The study found that after his death more than one-third of the participants (36%) researched his reasons for death and seven percent researched pancreatic cancer. Other statistics included: 97% of participants knew pancreatic cancer was what killed Steve Jobs; 50% read about him within days of his death and 74% had conversations about him; and 17% discussed pancreatic cancer.

The researchers, as well as the medical community, know it is essential to educate those who are unaware of the myriad causes and manifestations of cancer. Anyone can make a number of simple changes to their lifestyle that can prevent the deadly disease, which is the second leading cause of death in the United States behind heart disease.

"It's not just one disease; it's a lot of different diseases that happen to share the same label," said lead author Jessica Gall Myrick, in a news release. Celebrity announcements or deaths related to cancer are a rare opportunity for public health advocates to explain the differences between cancers, and how to prevent or detect them, to a public that is otherwise not paying much attention to these details."

What's even more promising about the study is that over 50% of the participants said they heard about Jobs' death through the Internet or social media. These omnipresent aspects of our everyday lives can help educate everyone about things they need to know.

You can read more in the published version of the Indiana University study.

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