Ageism in the USA: The paradox of prejudice against the elderly

ASHTON APPLEWHITE: All prejudice is rooted in seeing a group as other than ourselves. Ageism is unique and uniquely weird in that that other is us, our own future older selves. It's rooted in this crazy idea that somehow if we eat enough kale, or don't think about it, we're not going to become old, when, of course, actually, no one wants to die young, and we all aspire to getting old.

And if we can become an old person in training, which is simply to form, like just a little leap of the imagination and acknowledge, someday I'm going to get old. That older you can be as far off on the horizon as you need it to be. But if you acknowledge that you, of course, are someday going to get old, and PS, it might not even all be so terrible, then you never get stuck on that hamster wheel of age denial. You are more likely to look at and listen to the older people around you, and make friends of all ages, which is so important, for people everywhere on the age spectrum.

America is a deeply consumer driven society and deeply influenced by popular culture. And neither of those are friends to aging. If you look at pop culture, if you look at advertising, if you look at billboards, younger people are doing and selling all the fun stuff. Older people never seem to do anything, but a few rich ones with great hair get to go on cruises. And everyone else just stays home and takes drugs, and not the fun drugs either. If a group is missing from the popular conversation, then we don't notice its concerns and we're not awake to it.

Over 50% of workers over 50 leave their jobs involuntarily. They are either fired or forced out. There is this massive growing body of workers. And we're talking 50 and up, we're talking people with 20 or 30 more years in which to support themselves. Most of them no longer have traditional pensions to support themselves. So they're thrown on their own ways they have to draw on Social Security earlier, which means that they get less out of the bucket. And if any younger people are thinking, well, too bad, you had a really good run of it, two things to think about. Social Security can very easily be fixed with very small changes, like, hello, taxing businesses at a higher rate, unlike Medicare, which really is a huge snake pit and very complicated to fix. But I hope there will be ton of Social Security left for my children and grandchildren. And I think it's very easy to make that happen.

But also, if older people can't support themselves, who is going to support us? You know you can't take us out and shoot us, even if you want to. And the world is full of grandparents who help their kids with tuition, with childcare. More resources have always flowed from older people to younger people, which seems entirely appropriate to me. So we really, really need to be careful about old versus young framing in economic arenas or anywhere else.

Another place you hear old versus young logic applied is the workforce. If only those old people would retire or get the heck out of dodge so we could have their jobs. When jobs are really few, if the only job in town is a barista at Starbucks, and a bunch of people are competing for them, that's true in the narrowest sense. You might have a 19-year-old and a 59-year-old who both really need that job. But in general, older and younger workers do not compete for the same jobs. And more tellingly, the amount and nature of labor is not fixed. Economists call this the fallacy of the lump of labor. And it has been debunked countless times. Otherwise, when women flooded into the workforce, all these guys would have been put out of work. And that's not the way it works. Or the time-honored example for Marxism, about Polish work factory workers and Irish factory workers competing, instead of organizing and striking to have their employer pay them all a decent wage.

Prejudice does that. It pits us against each other in order to maintain the status quo. We are facing an unparalleled set of challenges. I'm thinking in particular the health of the planet. Older people and younger people are going to have to collaborate to solve these problems. So when you hear old versus young rhetoric, question it.

  • Prejudice is typically perpetrated against 'the other', i.e. a group outside our own.
  • But ageism is prejudice against ourselves — at least, the people we will (hopefully!) become.
  • Different generations needs to cooperate now more than ever to solve global problems.


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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

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  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
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At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


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