Year by year over the past two decades, evidence piles up that being on the receiving end of ageist attitudes, beliefs and practices not only leads to poor health, it can shorten lives.
And it's not only others' prejudice that adversely affects health. Just as important is an elder's own attitude toward being old; if it's negative, your health is likely to suffer.
One of the leading researchers in the field of ageism is Dr. Becca Levy of Yale University School of Public Health. In fact, as her online profile notes, Levy is credited with
”...creating a field of study that focuses on how positive and negative age stereotypes, which are assimilated from the culture, can have beneficial and adverse effects, respectively, on the health of older individuals.”
To spare you too many research study quotations, here is a fairly succinct overview of the results of some recent health-related ageism studies pulled together for a story in the Wall Street Journal:
”...dozens of studies from psychologists, medical doctors and neuroscientists have shown that older people with more negative views of aging fare more poorly on health than those with less-pessimistic attitudes.
“Even when study participants have similar health, education levels and socioeconomic status, those with more negative outlooks about aging show greater declines in a variety of areas over time.
“They have shakier handwriting, poorer memories, higher rates of cardiac disease and lower odds of recovering from severe disability, according to studies by Prof. Levy.
“They are less likely to eat a balanced diet, exercise and follow instructions for taking prescription medications as they age. They even die younger - the median difference in survival rates is 7.5 years.”
A new study from Trinity College in Dublin, reported at sciencedaily.com, confirms that negative attitudes toward aging affect cognitive as well as physical health.
”...frail participants with negative attitudes towards aging had worse cognition compared to participants who were not frail. However, frail participants with positive attitudes towards aging had the same level of cognitive ability as their non-frail peers.
You will find the full study at Science Direct behind a paid firewall.
Ageism results from the many widely believed myths about growing old that no matter how frequently and authoritatively they are refuted, apparently defy correction. A handful of those persistent myths are:
• The majority of old people have no interest in, nor capacity for, sexual relations
• The majority of old people are unable to adapt to change
• Depression is more frequent among the elderly than among younger people
• Old people tend to be pretty much alike
• Older workers usually cannot work as effectively as younger workers
None of those statements were true when gerontologist Erdman B. Palmore, professor emeritus of medical sociology at Duke University, published his Facts on Aging Quiz in 1998 - and they are still false today.
Nevertheless, the last one is under attack (again) with a new study my friend John Gear, an attorney in Salem, Oregon, alerted me to.
Using the results from one year of an Australian study of about 6500 people aged from 40 to 70-plus, researchers at the Melbourne Institute have concluded that people 40 and older get stupid after working 25 hours.
Okay, I'll admit that “stupid” is my word but that's what they appear to be saying:
”...in order for people over the age of 40 to perform their best, work weeks need to be three days with a maximum of 25 hours,” reports Daily Sabah.
“This is necessary to ensure productivity and enhance performance, the study said. “It was revealed that people who work three days performed much better than those working for more days.”
The data was taken from a longitudinal study, the annual Household, Income and Labour Dynamics (HILDA) Survey, that has been ongoing in Australia since 2001 but tested for workplace cognitive capability only one of those years.
Disturbing enough to rely on such limited information. But the implication that bothers me is the subtle suggestion that it is only middle aged and older workers who suffer this cognitive failure after 25 hours – a conclusion that is impossible to make since no one younger than 40 was tested.
(The full study, titled Use It Too Much and Lose It? The Effect of Working Hours on Cognitive Ability, can be found here [pdf].)
This follows a worrisome trend I've been been noticing for the past few years: that academics, political figures, governments, corporations and others grab onto isolated statistics or factoids, often as tenuous as this one, to propose ageist alterations to programs and institutions that benefit elders.
Think cutting Social Security, raising the Social Security retirement age, changing Medicare and Medicaid to a voucher programs, instituting an upper cut-off age for drivers licenses, in addition to others as subtlely ageist as this study from Australia.
And that's just off the top of my head. I am kicking myself that over the years I've been noticing the accumulation of these proposals, I've not kept a file. I'll start now (and you can help by sending me any you come across).
Meanwhile, don't take questionable research too seriously and make use of the important work Professor Levy and her cohorts do: Stay Healthy and Mentally Sharp: Celebrate Old Age.