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Silver Linings: Researcher says stop worrying about getting older

By GRETCHEN M. GROSKY
New Hampshire Union Leader

August 06. 2017 11:19PM
Dr. Erwin Tan, director of Thought Leadership-Health for AARP, has issued a call to “disrupt aging” and fight back against the negative stereotypes associated with getting older. (Courtesy)

Want to know the key to living longer? Stop stressing about living longer.

Scientists and researchers have found that the weight of thinking about aging is a stressor proven to affect cardiovascular health and cognitive function and can slow down the way a person walks, making them less active.

It can cause someone to withdraw and become isolated; the effects of loneliness have the health impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, researchers have found.

But having a better outlook on aging is not easy to do, says Dr. Erwin Tan, director of Thought Leadership-Health for AARP.

At the World Congress of Gerontology and Geriatrics last week, Tan was one of many leaders urging a call to action to “disrupt aging” and fight back against the negative stereotypes associated with getting older.

He said people’s exposure to this negativity is rising as rapidly as the population is aging. In the U.S. alone, someone turns President Trump’s age of 71 about every eight seconds.

“Attitudes and stereotypes about aging haven’t changed with the times or have gotten worse,” Tan said. “Too often the way aging is portrayed in the media or even in conversations among families and friends is negative and out of sync with the lives many older people lead.”

Tan said being more positive leads to being more active, having more friends and fewer hospitalizations. He said eschewing those negative stereotypes and being comfortable with the aging process can add seven more years of life.

“We have to address this because it affects our health,” Tan said. “It’s not only nice, it’s necessary.”

Ashton Applewhite, author of the book “This Chair Rocks” and the blog “Yo ... Is this Ageism?,” said the rise in negative stereotypes is borne out of the “new demographic phenomenon” of the world’s population living longer. It’s happened rapidly, she said, and “roles and institutions have yet to catch up.”

“Culture is fluid, but changing beliefs is difficult and changing values — that stuff takes time,” Applewhite said. “Ageism is the last socially sanctioned prejudice and we’ve just started looking at it.”

War on ageism

The August edition of The Gerontologist contains 12 research papers, showing how being exposed to negativity about aging affects health, how health care is used, where it’s coming from, and the importance of saying, “it’s OK to age.”

“Whenever these negative perceptions come from, the damage can be profound — for individuals, communities, and larger populations,” said AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins. “We need to change the conversation about age and aging in the country. This is not about being ‘polite.’ It’s a necessity.”

The Gerontological Society of America and AARP are making this a priority issue and fighting back with a campaign called “Disrupt Aging.” But Applewhite said aging is also an individual experience and sometimes the negativity comes from within.

“At the heart of ageism is denial, the reluctance to admit that we are going to become older people,” Applewhite said. “As long as we’re in denial that we’re going to get older, we’re going to feed into negative stereotypes.”

Buying in

Applewhite said when people buy into the notion that aging “is a problem or a disease,” they will spend big bucks to fight it. American consumers are estimated to spend more than $125 billion on skin care alone this year. One European company is selling an anti-aging serum at $1,800 an ounce, making it the world’s most expensive wrinkle repair.

She said “gray hair and wrinkles matter” and covering them up or hiding offers a “path to discrimination.”

“When we lie about our age or have cosmetic surgery, it’s like a person of color trying to pass for white or a gay person trying to pass for straight,” she said. “It’s wrong because it’s based in shame.”

The money is not just in anti-aging. Joseph Coughlin, founder of the MIT AgeLab, pointed to products that promote the idea of poor health and frailty, like oversized TV remotes with giant buttons and electric pill dispensers. Even the color is ageist “all beige and then there’s hospital blue,” he said.

“Why is it at a certain age that design goes out the window? Why is it that technology applications we are developing have nothing to do with fun, friends, or fashion?” Coughlin said. “We have to excite and delight the next generation.”

Watch your language

One way to fight ageism is to change how we talk about it, Applewhite said. She said “old” is a negative word in an ageist society and terms such as “senior citizen” and “elder” are now negative.

She refers to people as “olders” and “youngers.”

“It emphasizes age is a spectrum,” she said. “There is no dividing line between old and young.”

Applewhite is on a national tour talking to people about embracing aging; she will be appearing in Bethlehem and Peterborough later this month. She said a big part of the battle is just getting people to talk about aging.

“The reason is that is so important is until we do that, we see discrimination as a personal problem,” she said. “Even if someone stops to think about it, it’s a win.”

Another tip she offers is not to say aches and pains are due to age. She said she has one good knee, and one that aches.

“I stopped blaming my knee on being 65 because my other is just as old,” she said.

Applewhite said it’s important to remember that ageism is not limited to people over 65. It affects young people too.

“Nothing about aging is inevitable,” she said. “There are real challenges, but there are real opportunities. Of course there is loss, but there is much to be gained. Let’s tell both sides of the story.”

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Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday news report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire’s aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Gretchen Grosky would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at ggrosky@unionleader.com or (603) 206-7739. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging.

This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Silver Century Foundation.


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