Title: “Ageism: The -ism That Just Won’t Quit!”
Guest:  S. Jay Olshanksy, Professor of public health, University of Illinois at Chicago
Release Date:  1/11/24


ANNOUNCER:  It’s You Earned This, the Social Security and Medicare podcast, brought to you by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, and now your host, Walter Gottlieb.

HOST:  Hey, it’s Walter. And thanks for listening. Today, we talk with an expert on aging about a vexing problem in America, discrimination against senior citizens.

ANNOUNCER:  And now a word from our sponsor, Ageism. Friends, why not call a person old today or insist that someone is too old to run for office? It’s easy — perfect for anyone from the homemaker to the hardworking executive. And it goes down smooth with a nice hot cup of Joe. We know older people have no redeeming value, anyway. Right, friends? Remember, Ageism, the one remaining -ism that’s A-OK with everyone.

HOST:  Back when they had old time radio ads with that kind of sound, I think people actually had more respect for senior citizens than they do today. Remember the saying, “Respect your elders?” Well, that’s gone now. Let’s face it, Ageism is the one remaining socially acceptable -ism in mainstream society, I think. It’s still pretty much OK to make fun of someone for being old, to denigrate their value to society or to suggest that they’re too old to do a certain job, including, yeah, President of the United States. So we’re going to talk about the problem of ageism today and how it has an oversized role in the debate over who should be president. I have been really looking forward to kicking this around with today’s guest. Dr. Jay Olshansky is professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He specializes in human longevity and something called biodemography. Maybe he’ll tell us what that is. And his mission is to “eviscerate ageism.” Welcome. Do I call you Jay or Dr. Olshansky?

GUEST:  You can call me Jay. That’s fine.

HOST:  OK, Jay, what is biodemography?

GUEST:  That’s actually a field that I contributed to the development of back in 1992. And it’s an effort to understand why people live as long as we do, why other animals live as long as they do. And we know the answer.

HOST:  What is it?

GUEST:  So I’m going to give you the short answer that I gave my wife a long time ago. And that is:  the price we pay for sex is death, which is another way of saying, don’t interpret that incorrectly. It’s another way of saying that the duration of life of humans and other sexually reproducing species is calibrated to when we reproduce. So it’s puberty, menopause, the time of that window that determines how long we live.

HOST:  That is fascinating work. That sounds like a whole other podcast, man. Sounds like we need to get together and have a separate discussion about that. Let’s talk about ageism. Despite their enormous contributions to our country, our society, seniors are continually devalued as members of society. When someone calls another person old these days, I think it’s understood as an insult, not a sign of respect.

GUEST:  It should be a sign of respect. I mean, you have to realize throughout history, it was the elders that really held the highest positions in society. These were the folks that you went to when you wanted to solve problems, you know, where you wanted to learn where the predators were, where the food was. Yeah, the elders are really some of the most important elements of our of our society. They certainly should be critically important elements of society today. And actually, in many ways, they already are. I mean, older individuals, you know, run companies. They are presidents. They’re congressmen. They’re lawyers and doctors. They do everything. They’re academics. And they do it often better than they did when they were younger, whatever it was that they did. And that’s in part because of the wisdom and the experience that comes with time. I use time instead of age because we age biologically at different rates. Time ticks the same for all of us, but not biologically. So you can get some people that are very, you know, that are older, that are in their 70s, 80s, 90s, and they’re not operating any differently than when they were in their 30s, 40s and 50s. And the reverse is also true. Some people in their 30s, 40s and 50s are operating at levels that you might ordinarily expect would be for older individuals. So a lot of variability in the way in which we age and healthy older individuals are a normal part of our society. And these folks are extraordinarily valuable in our world.

HOST:  And yet today, old is kind of a dirty word. You know, Michelle Denman, who’s a professor at the Washington University Institute of Public Health, wrote recently that ageism is everywhere:  in the workplace, in media, in Hollywood, in schools and in health care. And it is something that most everyone will experience at some point in their lives. And a University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging found that 82% of older adults said they regularly experience at least one form of ageism. And that could be jokes. It could be messages. It could be people saying, oh, you don’t understand technology. You can’t hear. You can’t see. You can’t comprehend.

GUEST: Yeah. You know, the funny thing is, is that if you — you really should think of aging in a way is like traveling to a foreign land. You know, once you make it out to older ages, you know, you have a vision of what this land is going to look like when you’re younger. And then when you get there, you go, yeah, it’s not what I thought. You know, I’m, you know, I’m 69, for example, I’m operating at a level that is actually better than when I was younger, to be sure. And so it’s certainly not what I thought. Now I teach students, undergraduates and graduates, but mostly graduate students who are in their early 20s. And I asked them, frankly, is there anything good about growing older? Now of course, remember, they haven’t experienced it yet. So they’re operating on images and concepts that have been given to them by whomever, the media, their friends, their colleagues, and almost without fail, all of the students will say no, there’s nothing good about growing older, because they associate growing older with loss, decline, decay, things that they don’t like. And the facts belie that. The fact is, is that the vast majority of the population, certainly in the United States, for the age of 85, is not experiencing any significant health challenges. And about 25% are extraordinarily healthy. So we have lots of variability that exists at older ages. Sure, you can’t sugarcoat aging, there are things that go wrong. You know, body parts don’t operate as well as they used to, but we compensate for things that change. For example, I’m wearing these glasses because my eyes don’t work as well as they did when I was younger. I wear these hearing aids because my hearing isn’t as good as when I was younger. These would have been extraordinarily difficult challenges 100 years ago, 200 years ago, not anymore. So a lot of the challenges associated with aging have been eliminated.

HOST:  What about dementia? Younger people, middle-aged people assume a lot of older people have dementia. Is there a strict correlation between age and dementia? And simply because you are 80 or over, can we assume you have dementia?

GUEST:  No, to the latter point, absolutely not. The vast majority of the population, 80 and older, does not have dementia. There is a correlation between age and dementia, just as there’s a correlation between age and everything else that goes wrong with the human body. The knees, the hips, we accumulate body fat. There are body parts that weren’t designed for long-term use, problems with our backs in men, problems with our prostate. There are things that go wrong, and you can’t deny that. That’s part of the normal process of aging. But there’s a tendency to view aging just in this really negative light, and you have to realize that once you get out here, certainly if you’ve taken good care of yourself when you’re younger, you can actually make it out, take this journey out to older ages and really enjoy life. Really enjoy this time in your 60s, 70s, 80s, for some even into their 90s. There is no guarantee that once you get out to older ages, you are going to have dementia or Alzheimer’s. The risk is higher, to be sure. There’s no question that that’s true at the population level, but it is not guaranteed.

HOST:  So you said you’re 69?

GUEST:  Yes.

HOST:  Okay. You look great, by the way. Is that an ageist thing to say?

GUEST:  I don’t care. I’ll take the compliment.

HOST:  Thank you. Compliment given. You remember the Carol Burnett show?

GUEST:  Yes.

HOST:  Okay. So Tim Conway had the doddering old man character, which we all laughed at back in the day. So obviously, there was some ridicule of old people in comedy and popular culture, and I think about certain movies in the 90’s like Freaky Friday and others where there’s an old person, an old grandpa who’s just completely lost it and he’s constantly wandering away. But what has changed now that ageism seems so pervasive in the culture now?

GUEST:  Well, it’s so easy to be ageist in today’s world where we have access to TikTok and Facebook and everything is done remotely. And so you can take any view that you want, get it out there, not own it with your name on it. And so, yeah, it’s very easy to do this. And then it’s used for political purposes. Some folks are using ageism for a specific reason, to denigrate somebody. I mean, look, if you go back to the debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale, where there was an effort to denigrate Reagan because he was older and Reagan turned the table completely and basically said, yeah, I won’t hold Walter Mondale’s youth and inexperience against him. It was absolutely brilliant way to reverse that whole issue. So it’s weaponized. I’ve seen it weaponized certainly since the time of Reagan. And the weaponization, of course, has grown stronger in the modern era because the current president and the previous president were the two oldest presidents in American history. So it’s not surprising that you would see a weaponization of age, especially by people that are younger.

HOST:  Jay, you have so much great content that we’ve run out of time for today. But I’d love to bring you back for a part two. So we will have a part two of our interview about ageism with S. Jay. Olshansky next week. And in the meantime, remember, you earned this!