The Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging at the Institute for Public Health hosted the 18th Annual Friedman Lecture & Awards on April 20 at the Eric P. Newman Education Center on the Washington University School of Medicine campus.
The event’s keynote speaker was Becca Levy, PhD, Professor of Public Health and Psychology at Yale University. Dr. Levy discussed how ageism and age stereotypes are assimilated from a variety of sources in the surrounding culture. Endorsement of these stereotypes impacts younger individuals’ perceptions of and behaviors toward older individuals. For those in later life, age stereotypes can impact self-perceptions, which, in turn, can influence health and functioning.
Levy supported her assertions with results from several research studies. Compared to older individuals with more-negative age stereotypes, those with more-positive age stereotypes tend to experience better cognitive functioning, reduced risk of disability and cardiovascular events, less accumulation of Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers, lower stress response, and increased longevity. Interventions to strengthen positive age stereotypes subliminally have been shown to increase positive self-perceptions of aging, and in turn resulted in improved physical function. Levy advocated that deliberate intervention is needed to increase positive age stereotypes in our culture. She recommended that both top-down (i.e., from society to the individual) and bottom-up (i.e., from the individual to society) approaches were needed.
Levy’s keynote was followed by a panel discussion with the audience. Panelists were Lenise Cummings-Vaughn, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis; Meghan McDarby, Graduate Student in Clinical Psychology, Washington University in St. Louis; and Mary Ann Tipton, member of STL Village, a non-profit that supports older adults in their communities. Nancy Morrow-Howell, Director of the Friedman Center, moderated the discussion.
Negative attitudes about aging can pose challenges for recruiting professionals to train in geriatrics and gerontology specializations. Dr. Cummings-Vaughn discussed workforce shortages in geriatrics — among physicians and other healthcare professions. Geriatric fellowships commonly go unfilled and the demand for trained professionals outpaces supply. She recommended that content on aging needs to be part of a common thread throughout medical courses and training, not just a specific module or lecture, to highlight the relevance of being trained in the aging process and its interplay with medical conditions whether someone specializes in geriatrics or not.
Ms. McDarby echoed some of this discussion related to her experience with Washington University in St. Louis’s When I’m 64 course. Attitudes and stereotypes about age and aging are addressed in the course where first-year WashU students are joined by volunteer students who are members of STL Village. Findings from a pre-post evaluation conducted with students indicate that although knowledge of aging and explicit attitudes toward older adults improve among students in the course, implicit attitudes toward aging and anxiety about personal aging show little change.
Negative attitudes toward older adults and personal aging are so pervasive in American society that recognizing a practice or communication as ageist can prove difficult. Ms. Tipton reflected on her experience in human resources and working in multigenerational workplaces. After discussing ageism more recently with STL Village members and reflecting on how ageist perspectives are a part of our culture, she recalled several challenges in the workplace that were strongly influenced by age stereotypes. However, at the time they occurred, she did not make the direct connection.
“We will all become older adults, but the influence of ageism continues to be underestimated, even by professionals,” said Friedman Center Director Nancy Morrow-Howell. “We have a lot of work ahead to change the narrative on later life so that we all can be relieved of the effects of age stereotyping.”
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The 18th Annual Friedman Lecture and Awards was made possible by the support of the Harvey A. and Dorismae Hacker Friedman Endowment for Aging at The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital.