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11/30/2023 | News release | Distributed by Public on 11/30/2023 18:15

Why age bias has real world health effects

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Ageism, and an older person's perception of aging, may hold the keys to a longer life, according to a new study published in The Gerontologist. The findings support previous research that shows how ageist attitudes and negative self-perceptions of aging directly affect an older person's physical and mental health.

Researchers from the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging at Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine found a "significant" association between the subjective successful aging of adults ages 50-74 and their risk for mortality within nine years.

The team analyzed data collected between 2006 and 2008 from 5,483 people ages 50-74 living in New Jersey. Researchers measured demographic, health and lifestyle variables, as well as subjective successful aging. Despite accounting for known mortality risk factors, researchers found an inverse relationship between subjective successful aging scores and mortality risk. People with low scores (between 0 and 5), had a 45% chance of dying within nine years, while those with high scores (between 25 and 30) had less than a 10% chance of dying. The findings showed that for each one-point rise in a subjective successful aging score, the risk of mortality decreased by 3%.

Analyzing the results

These findings show that after accounting for known risk factors for mortality, perceptions are powerful predictors. This research highlights the value of measuring how people feel about their aging experience, because it can be used as a tool to identify people who would benefit from interventions. It also demonstrates the importance of how journalists frame their stories and the language they use.

"Ageism is quite complicated, and also nuanced and can be difficult to identify," Tracey Gendron, Ph.D., chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University department of gerontology and executive director of the Virginia Center on Aging, told reporters at the Gerontological Society of America Conference on Nov. 8. However, when people constantly hear negative messages about being older, they start to internalize them and begin believing them.

"It's the fear and the dread and the shame and what we carry around with us about what it means to be whatever age we are and what it means to grow older," she said. That can have some really profound consequences for our health and for our longevity, according to Gendron, author of "Ageism Unmasked: Exploring age bias and how to end it." Depression, social isolation and a shorter life span all become more likely.

The framing we use also matters a lot, Gendron told journalists. "I understand journalists need to get the story, but we need to also represent normal people who are experiencing normal things as we're aging, rather than just a superager or someone who is frail or senile, because that's usually the two polarities we tend to address."

Reporters should only mention someone's age in their stories if it adds something specific to the narrative. "Age alone doesn't really tell you anything about anyone," Gendron said. She cited an example of writing about someone skiing a difficult trail at age 65 or 75 and asked whether age would be included in the story if the skier was 45.

In a 2021 study, Yale researcher and psychologist Becca Levy, Ph.D., found similar evidence of negative aging stereotypes affecting older adults' mental health. When analyzing negative messaging towards older adults during the height of the COVID-19pandemic by government officials, as well as on social media, she found "among older individuals, the negative-age stereotype messaging led to more anxiety and less peacefulness than among those exposed to neutral messaging."

Levy suggested that editors and ombudsmen, particularly in traditional media, be more aware of the importance of positive framing of aging, and of the harmful effects negative stereotypes and bias can cause for older people. It's a good rule of thumb for journalists as well.

Resources

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Why age bias has real world health effects

by Liz Seegert, Association of Health Care Journalists
November 30, 2023

Why age bias has real world health effects

by Liz Seegert, Association of Health Care Journalists
November 30, 2023

Ageism, and an older person's perception of aging, may hold the keys to a longer life, according to a new study published in The Gerontologist. The findings support previous research that shows how ageist attitudes and negative self-perceptions of aging directly affect an older person's physical and mental health.

Researchers from the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging at Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine found a "significant" association between the subjective successful aging of adults ages 50-74 and their risk for mortality within nine years.

The team analyzed data collected between 2006 and 2008 from 5,483 people ages 50-74 living in New Jersey. Researchers measured demographic, health and lifestyle variables, as well as subjective successful aging. Despite accounting for known mortality risk factors, researchers found an inverse relationship between subjective successful aging scores and mortality risk. People with low scores (between 0 and 5), had a 45% chance of dying within nine years, while those with high scores (between 25 and 30) had less than a 10% chance of dying. The findings showed that for each one-point rise in a subjective successful aging score, the risk of mortality decreased by 3%.

Analyzing the results

These findings show that after accounting for known risk factors for mortality, perceptions are powerful predictors. This research highlights the value of measuring how people feel about their aging experience, because it can be used as a tool to identify people who would benefit from interventions. It also demonstrates the importance of how journalists frame their stories and the language they use.

"Ageism is quite complicated, and also nuanced and can be difficult to identify," Tracey Gendron, Ph.D., chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University department of gerontology and executive director of the Virginia Center on Aging, told reporters at the Gerontological Society of America Conference on Nov. 8. However, when people constantly hear negative messages about being older, they start to internalize them and begin believing them.&nbsp;

"It's the fear and the dread and the shame and what we carry around with us about what it means to be whatever age we are and what it means to grow older," she said. That can have some really profound consequences for our health and for our longevity, according to Gendron, author of "Ageism Unmasked: Exploring age bias and how to end it." Depression, social isolation and a shorter life span all become more likely.&nbsp;

The framing we use also matters a lot, Gendron told journalists. "I understand journalists need to get the story, but we need to also represent normal people who are experiencing normal things as we're aging, rather than just a superager or&nbsp; someone who is frail or senile, because that's usually the two polarities we tend to address."&nbsp;

Reporters should only mention someone's age in their stories if it adds something specific to the narrative. "Age alone doesn't really tell you anything about anyone," Gendron said. She cited an example of writing about someone skiing a difficult trail at age 65 or 75 and asked whether age would be included in the story if the skier was 45.

In a 2021 study, Yale researcher and psychologist Becca Levy, Ph.D., found similar evidence of negative aging stereotypes affecting older adults' mental health. When analyzing negative messaging towards older adults during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic by government officials, as well as on social media, she found "among older individuals, the negative-age stereotype messaging led to more anxiety and less peacefulness than among those exposed to neutral messaging."&nbsp;&nbsp;

Levy suggested that editors and ombudsmen, particularly in traditional media, be more aware of the importance of positive framing of aging, and of the harmful effects negative stereotypes and bias can cause for older people.&nbsp; It's a good rule of thumb for journalists as well.

Resources

  • National Center to Reframe Aging - an initiative led by the Gerontological Society of America
  • Old School Clearinghouse - a comprehensive collection of anti-ageism resources compiled by activist Ashton Applewhite
  • The impact of ageism on health and healthcare - from The Journalist's Resource&nbsp;
  • Overcoming unconscious age bias: an expert's advice - from Next Avenue
  • 10 tips for eliminating ageist language in your stories - an AHCJ tip sheet

This article first appeared on Association of Health Care Journalists and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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