By Ruth Taber
More than 10,000 people turn 65 every day in our country. Close to 12 million are over 80 and many are living well into their 90s. But the sad truth is how many people – young and old – refuse to accept elderhood as a normal stage of human life, following childhood and adulthood.
Aging, dying and death are not diseases and there is no fountain of youth. Aging can’t be avoided or bypassed (other than by illness or death). But high pressure medical/pharmaceutical marketing (often combined with over-medicalization/treatment) urges people to believe they can delay or avoid aging. Not so!
Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the large, long running New England Centenarian Study (which in addition to many participants over age 100 includes more than 600 individuals over age 105 and 200 more over 110) writes: “I don’t think the trick is staying young. I think the trick is aging well.”
In a country that practices ageism ( discriminates against people just because they’re old) aging well is not easy. And, unlike other isms, we will all be vulnerable to its effects if we live long enough. Individuals, institutions and, unfortunately, many older people foster ageism by repeating accepted casual comments/responses/so-called jokes.
Treating illness among society’s elders is challenging since board-certified geriatricians (physicians trained, knowledgeable and certified in treating older patients) are in short supply, here in El Paso and throughout the country.
Geriatrics, a specialty not often chosen by new doctors, unfortunately suffers from low prestige; geriatric specialists spend more time with their patients and earn less than other physicians in our society.
Why should there be a specialist for older patients? Someone in their 80s may respond poorly or have an adverse reaction to a medication prescribed by a physician who does not have experience with an aging clientele. (Until recently, clinical trials on new drugs never included anyone over 64.)
To make matters worse, too many internists/family care physicians who have taken care of patients for years are retiring earlier — suffering from burn-out, overwork and too many hours spent on required computers/electronic medical systems. Less time with a patient can lead to a more difficult path through their “elderhood.”
You don’t have to be over 80 to collect snide comments. AARP notes about two-thirds of today’s workers aged 45 to 74 have experienced age discrimination in the workplace. Employers can’t put an age cap on jobs but you’ll note they’re looking for “young, vibrant person to join our team” which translates as “we are not looking for old people.”
Should we care about ageist attitudes? Unless you have dreams of immortality and barring accidents/illness, all of us will be older one of these days. Our attitudes matter, positive or negative.
In a 2002 research paper from Yale University’s School of Public Health, Becca Levy and colleagues found that older people with positive attitudes about aging lived almost eight years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging. Attitudes about aging can influence the lifespan and wellbeing of our fast-growing aging population.
Other experimental studies have shown that older individuals with negative attitudes about aging may suffer an increase of cardiovascular reactivity to stress and reduced memory performance.
Positive age beliefs predict better cognitive performance, and negative age beliefs predict worse cognitive performance. Age beliefs tend to be internalized early in life and unfortunately remain stable over the lifespan if there are no interventions.
Hopefully you’re not spending too much on assorted pills/potions promising long-lasting youthfulness, great memory recall, and other ways to “avoid aging.” (You’ll do a lot better with the Mediterranean diet – fresh veggies, fruit, fish, nuts, etc.)
And think of this the next time you watch the TV commercial depicting a “happy” active couple (with a bit of gray hair) smiling and telling viewers that since they’ve been taking these wonderful memory pills their memory is so much better. How do they know what their memory would be like without the pills?
Ruth Taber, MSPH, is a graduate of Yale School of Public Health (1954) and a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.
Cover photo: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wellington Chew Senior Center celebrated its 40th anniversary. (Photo courtesy of the city of El Paso)