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Show 1311: Why We Should Fight Back Against Ageism

Ageism is widespread and damaging in American life. Adopting more positive attitudes toward aging can benefit everyone growing older.
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Why We Should Fight Back Against Ageism

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This week on our nationally syndicated radio show, we explore the impacts of negative attitudes toward aging and how to fight back against ageism. In the US, many people hold negative stereotypes about growing older. These beliefs can affect our health as we age.

Why Are Negative Stereotypes About Aging So Destructive?

Psychiatrist Robert Butler coined the term “ageism” in 1969. Officials had proposed transforming an apartment building in a  Washington, DC, suburb into senior housing. Sadly, other residents were protesting. Their negative attitudes reminded him of racism or sexism and were equally ill-founded. He described ageism as a “process of systematic stereotyping or discrimination against people because they are old.”

Even if we acknowledge that demeaning stereotypes of older people as clueless and incapable are inaccurate, does that make any difference? According to researcher Becca Levy, it does. People exposed to negative concepts about growing older tend to lose confidence in their own abilities, possibly restricting their activities. In fact, data from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, show that people with negative age beliefs are more likely to develop the neurological plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer disease.

Those who harbor positive ideas about aging as a time when they have better understanding and can more readily embrace their passions recover more quickly from injury. In Dr. Levy’s study, people who view aging as a time for growth lived an average of 7.5 years longer (in better health) than individuals who look upon aging with fear.

How Can We Fight Back Against Ageism?

According to Dr. Levy, we can chalk ageism up to “lizard brains and corporate greed.” (Now, you’ll really need to listen to the interview to find out what she means.)

Here’s a hint, though. It’s linked to one of our pet peeves: drug ads on TV. The idea that a pill will make you just like the happy people in the ads–beautiful and vivacious, enjoying life–is certainly appealing. (Just don’t listen to the list of side effects read quickly while people on the screen are having a wonderful time.) Such ads may be cleverly constructed to imply that without whichever pill the ad is selling, the viewer will be relegated to the dust bin of age.

We don’t have to put up with doctors treating older patients as unable to understand the details of diagnosis and treatment. While many of us would appreciate information that we can consult again later, that isn’t limited to people over 50. As Maggie Kuhn, the founder of the Gray Panthers said, “Old age is an excellent time for outrage.”

The ABC Method to Fight Ageism:

Dr. Levy suggests that to fight ageism, we have to follow the ABCs. A is for awareness of ageism wherever we encounter it. By the way, people with ageist attitudes may also harbor beliefs that border on racism or sexism as well. Spaces without older people because they are not included are examples of ageism as much as derogatory birthday cards for those turning 40, 50 or 65.

B is for blame. Put it where it belongs–on ageism, not on older adults. Having a health care professional dismiss a patient’s complaint with “What do you expect at your age?” is a prime example of unacceptable ageism. So is talking to an older patient’s adult child instead of to the patient herself.

C stands for challenge. When you encounter ageism, no matter what your age may be, it’s appropriate to point it out. You don’t have to blame the person making the remark. Very often they haven’t given ageism much thought. But suggesting another approach might be useful.

Dr. Levy includes exercises on the ABC method to bolster positive age beliefs in the appendix to her book. They are well worth considering.

This Week’s Guest:

Becca Levy, PhD, is Professor of Epidemiology in the Social and Behavioral Sciences Department at the Yale School of Public Health. She is also Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychology at Yale University and part of the Affiliated Faculty of the Yale Institute for Global Health.

Dr. Levy’s research explores psychosocial factors that influence older individuals’ cognitive and physical functioning, as well as their longevity. She 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. Her studies have been conducted by longitudinal, experimental, and cross-cultural methods.

Her new book is Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live. Dr. Levy’s website is https://becca-levy.com/

The photo of Dr. Levy is by Julia Gerace.

Listen to the Podcast:

The podcast of this program will be available Monday, August 15, 2022, after broadcast on August 13. You can stream the show from this site and download the podcast for free.

Download the mp3

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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