How Should We Talk About Aging?

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While some people embrace the experience of growing older, the process of aging is often unwelcome. In his older years, Mark Twain quipped that “life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18.” Twain was not alone in lamenting the loss of youth. Aging triggers fears of a deteriorating body and brain. Exercise, diet, and interaction with friends or relatives can help us guard against health risks associated with aging, but health conditions — whether or not they are age-related — are not entirely within our control.

Aging is nevertheless a natural part of life. As the world population grows older, the mental health community has increasingly focused on how people can age well. A leading researcher in the field of gerontology explains that the concept of positive aging is based on the belief that “there are sources of happiness in our later years that are inherent in the processes of growing old.” Positive aging is not tied to our ability to “dodge our infirmities, but rather, our ability to focus on what makes life worthwhile in our later years in spite of the physical or mental challenges that may arise.”

The Language of Ageism

Unfortunately, it is difficult to maintain an optimistic approach to aging in a society that values youth and often views older people as irrelevant. It’s easy to laugh when younger people respond to an older person’s opinion with “okay boomer.” It is more difficult to be amused by the prejudice against older people that pervades society.

The stigma associated with growing old is reflected in the language that marketing departments use. Store shelves and media advertisements are filled with “anti-aging” beauty and health products, as if older people should wage a war against the inevitable. Studies suggest that negative descriptions of older adults in the media are six times greater than positive descriptions.

Whether or not it is beneficial for health or self-esteem to use products that are marketed as “anti-aging,” the phrase is both misleading and harmful. Everyone of every age grows older every day. Language that stigmatizes aging promotes the stereotype that older individuals are less able to live a happy and productive life than younger persons. The reality is that many older people live a satisfying life and that many younger people do not. Age is not a predictor of any individual’s quality of life.

Language that describes aging in negative terms — as something that must be resisted — contributes to negative perceptions of aging. Those perceptions inhibit positive aging. Older adults who have negative attitudes about aging experience more rapid declines in psychological, physical and cognitive functions.

Becca Levy, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, notes that negative messaging about aging causes “elevated cortisol levels or higher physiological stress level, which can, in turn, lead to some poor health outcomes.” She argues that older people internalize negative messages when they refer to a memory failure as a “senior moment” or blame back pain on old age. Their language is inconsistent with the reality that they also forgot where they left the car keys or felt aches and pains when they were younger.

Talking About Aging

There is little that individuals can do to change marketing strategies for health and beauty products. Individuals can, however, change the way they talk about aging. 

Altering ageist language begins by avoiding false compliments like “You look great for your age” or “You’re really spry for an old guy.” It extends to confronting people who make dismissive remarks like “he’s just old” or “she’s over the hill.” And it includes a refusal to blame health or cognitive issues on age rather than their underlying causes.

Regardless of our age, we should recognize ageist attitudes and work to overcome prejudices. As Prof. Levy points out, cognition and memory do not inevitably decline with age, older workers are not always less productive than younger workers, and the ability to master technology is not a function of age. When we recognize older people as individuals and not as stereotypes, we are less likely to describe them in judgmental terms.

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