It’s Time to Change Our Perceptions About What it Means to Grow Old

Senior couple looking at each other and smiling

Ageism – the belief that older people are somehow inferior to those who are young – is rampant in America. In one study, 70 percent of older adults said they had been insulted or mistreated because of their age. According the World Health Organization, ageism is most rampant in high-income countries, like the United States and it has a highly negative impact.

Ageism and Health

The negative impact of ageism has been well-documented. Stress, depression and a higher risk of heart disease result when seniors internalize negative messages from the media and from people around them. A study from Yale showed that negative beliefs about aging may be linked to brain changes related to Alzheimer’s disease – specifically, people who had more negative thoughts about aging had a significantly greater number of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, two conditions associated with Alzheimer’s. Another Yale study showed that positive attitudes about aging could extend one’s life by 7-1/2 years – a greater lifespan gain than from low cholesterol, low blood pressure, maintaining a healthy weight, or even being a nonsmoker!

The Economic Impact

Ageism causes damage in other meaningful ways. Age discrimination in the workforce is sending many seniors into poverty. As many as 2/3 of workers between the ages of 45 and 74 say they have experienced age discrimination at work. Older workers who lose a job spend a longer time unemployed than their younger counterparts and if they do find another job, it usually pays less that the one they left. And while the “official” unemployment rate for those 55 and older hovers around 3.5 percent, an analysis by Time Magazine revealed that when you factor in those working part-time who would rather be working full-time and those who have given up looking for work altogether, the unemployment rates reaches a whopping 12 percent.

Changing Perceptions

Today, we have the opportunity to take steps toward a more positive way of portraying and relating to older adults. We are seeing efforts on the individual, institutional, national and global fronts to impress upon everyone that people of every stage of life are valuable. Part of changing perceptions it to challenges some of the commonly held beliefs about aging. We thought it would be a good idea to dispel some of the myths about growing older. Here are just a few:

Myth 1: Memory loss is inevitable as we age

It is true that Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and other conditions that cause memory loss and cognitive impairment are more common as we grow older. Many will experience certain age-related memory changes. Yet most older adults complete our lives fully cognitively intact. Indeed, recent studies suggest that older brains are better at certain tasks that involve discernment and judgment—the qualities more commonly referred to as “wisdom.”

Myth 2: Older adults are less happy than their younger counterparts

It’s interesting that this myth persists, given that numerous studies have been conducted showing the opposite to be true. A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry showed that the older the person, the happier they were. A Gallup poll discovered that the older people experienced less stress and worry than younger people.

Myth 3: Older adults are a burden to their children

In a study conducted by Pew Research, more than 90 percent of people age 65 and older live in their own home or apartment. Only 12 percent of respondents said they rely on their children more than their children rely on them, less than the number that say their children rely on them more than they rely on their children (14 percent). The vast majority of older adults continue to live independent and fulfilling lives.

 Myth 4: It’s too late to [fill in the blank]

Let’s start with exercise – many people feel that if you haven’t been physically active all your life, starting at an advanced age will do no good. Yet, even when begun later in life, exercise can decrease one’s risk of becoming ill or frail. Too late to achieve great things? Barbara Hillary, at age 75, became the first African-American to reach the North Pole. At age 79, she became the first to reach both poles. Too late for romance? A British study in 2012 found that the number of grooms older than 65 increased by 25 percent over the previous year; for brides, it was a 21 percent increase. In America, the number of people over the age of 50 living together in a romantic relationship doubled from 2000 to 2010. Where there’s a will, there’s a way as the old saying goes – if there’s something you really want in life, age should never be a barrier.

John Beard, WHO Director of Ageing and Life Course, says “Like sexism and racism, changing social norms is possible. It is time to stop defining people by their age. It will result in more prosperous, equitable and healthier societies.”

Categories: Aging