Gilfix & La Poll Associates LLP Gilfix & La Poll Associates LLP

Ageism: The Silent Epidemic Impacting Us All

There’s a public health crisis that we can all do something about. It’s everywhere and we don’t do enough about it.

I am referring to ageism, which unfortunately is alive and well in our society, in our culture.

The fact is that we are bombarded daily with negative messages about aging. We’re seeing it in the media even more frequently as President Biden’s age has been the subject of endless negative – and often misleading and misinformed-- commentary and articles. Demeaning messages about aging are everywhere – ads, movies, tv programs, and in our own conversations. Once you listen for them, you will notice.

If you’re “young” you may think it doesn’t matter to you. But if you want to have a healthy life as you get older, know that these pervasive messages are lowering your prospects for good health later on.

Did you make a New Year’s resolution to exercise more, eat more vegetables, take up meditation? We aspire to do these things because we want to be and stay healthier. Some are effective; some are not. Yet, most of us believe in the efficacy of these behaviors.

We search for ways to lengthen our lives and make them both vibrant and productive. Heaven knows there are articles and ads about how to do that with this cream, that device, or this miracle supplement. But is there concrete evidence that any of these things actually work to improve and/or lengthen our lives?

What can you do to add healthy years to your lives, to reduce the risk of cardiovascular events, to lessen the likelihood of getting dementia, and to improve your overall mental outlook. You don’t have to join a gym, eat spinach, or give up ice cream.

You can fight ageism, which is the stereotyping of and discrimination against older adults. It is one of the most socially-condoned andinstitutionalized forms of prejudice in our nation.

I am impressed with the current work of Becca Levy, Yale researcher and author of Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live. Her work shows that how we think about aging can impact us on behavioral, psychological, and physiological levels.

Through research spanning over 20 years, she says, "I found that older people with more-positive perceptions of aging performed better physically and cognitively than those with more-negative perceptions.They were more likely to recover from severe disability, they remembered better, they walked faster and they even lived longer."

It's a shockingly straightforward means of preventative care. Yet, truly ridding yourself of negative age beliefs is easier said than done. From age-defying wrinkle creams to ads poking fun at senior citizens, ageist stereotypes are all around us — and their impact is much more than skin-deep.

Dr. Levy’s 2002 longevity study for two decades followed hundreds of residents older than 50 in a small Ohio town. The study found that median survival was seven and a half years longer for those with the most positive beliefs about aging, compared with those having the most negative attitudes. Is this not a remarkable outcome!?

Age discrimination often limits access to work opportunities, housing and even health care. That's not just a problem for older people. We are all aging, and our loved ones are aging.

By exposing yourself to and internalizing more positive age beliefs, you can not only improve your quality of life at every age, but bring us all a little closer to Levy's idea of age liberation, which means equal opportunities and inclusion of people regardless of their age.

Just to give you an idea, among 100 older people (whose average age was 81), those exposed to subliminal, implicit positive age stereotypes weekly for a month scored better on tests of gait, strength and balance than control groups did. In fact, those receiving positive exposure improved more than a similar-aged experimental group that exercised for six months. In a study of New Haven residents over 70, those with positive age beliefs were also more likely to recover fully from severe disability than those with negative beliefs.

Note that it only took exposure to positive age stereotypes to produce these results. I never like being told that I “only” need to change my attitude to be more “positive.” These kinds of studies indicate we can get help changing our societally instilled negative stereotypes!

What does Levy recommend? And what do I recommend? Here are her ABC’s to combat ageism and make for healthier lives for all of us.

  • A is for increasing Awareness. Be aware that these negative stereotyping messages are everywhere. Be mindful of underestimating people based on their age. The messaging that younger folk are getting (and sometimes promoting) now about older people shapes how they expect their own aging to happen, and how they will fare when they are older.
  • B is for placing Blame on ageism rather than on age. Stop blaming aging for health problems; ageism itself can cause some of the very problems attributed to old age.
  • C is for Challenging negative age beliefs. Challenge these negative messages – both explicit and implicit –on an individual level as well as on a cultural level.

A core belief of Dr. Levy is that “you can’t create beliefs, but you can activate them.” This can be done by exposing people to words like “active” and “full of life,” instead of “grumpy” or “helpless,” to describe older adults.

We can start with ourselves. We can think about how we describe our own aging. Are we unduly pessimistic, unconsciously affirming the negative stereotypes that do us harm? Can we describe our aging to our selves first, and then to our family and friends, as positive, energizing, and deeply rewarding? The fact is: words matter.

There are many examples of specific physiological and psychological benefits of engendering positive beliefs about aging as well as discarding the negative stereotypes. And there are facts that dispel the many negative myths of aging that we are bombarded with.

I urge you to read Dr. Levy’s book. But whether you do or not, there are many ways to engender your own positivity about aging. It is good for you, for your loved ones, and for your entire community.

Myra Gerson Gilfix, Esq.

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