All societies have a complex relationship with aging and the old, but in the English-language Western cultures that I'm most familiar with it seems especially convoluted and strange. Individualism and a high value placed on future potential and raw talent do not have to go hand in hand with a lack of respect for older folk who have found their way to positions of authority on their own merits, but it certainly seems that way at times. Any number of fields in which older people can do well, such as hands-on software engineering, shut their doors to anyone with more than three decades of active experience. Media outlets relentlessly display youth and only youth: the state of being old is hidden away. The comparatively small number of young entrepreneurs are idolized, while the vast majority of successful captains of industry, largely older folk, fade into the backdrop.
There is simultaneously a fear of being old, an unwillingness to talk about the realities of being old, and a knee-jerk rejection of serious attempts to extend healthy life through medical science. Yet at the same time, the marketing of obviously fake "anti-aging" potions is a multi-billion dollar industry. The drawn-out details of the late stages of aging to death are hidden away to be rediscovered by every family, one small group at a time, and never to be shared in public or polite society. Everyone looks away.
Conflicted doesn't even begin to describe this morass. I think it is ancient at root, and what we have today is the modern iteration of fears and apprehensions that are as old as human society. No-one wants to look their own mortality in the face. Consider the old fable of The Three Living and the Three Dead, often presented in the form of three nobles meeting with three corpses while out riding in the woods, who tell them: "What you are, we were. And what we are, you will be." Ageism has an impact on medicine because it has an impact on every aspect of life:
Cancer is a major health problem that is widespread in elderly people. Paradoxically, older people suffering from cancer are often excluded from clinical trials and are undertreated when compared to younger patients. One explanation for these observations is age stigma (ie, stereotypes linked to age, and thus ageism). These stigmas can result in deleterious consequences for elderly people's mental and physical health in "normal" aging. This discrimination against elderly patients is not limited to research; it is observed in the clinic too. Older patients are undertreated when compared to younger patients. Yet it should be remembered that "advanced" age alone should not be a contraindication for treatments that can increase a patient's quality of life or significantly extend a patient's survival.
A recent paper, quoted below, marshals evidence to suggest that ageism in its present form is not in fact an ancient thing at all, but rather a modern phenomenon. The authors argue that correlations between the rise of modern medicine, lengthening life expectancy, and ageism suggest that there is something in the growing ability of medical science to treat the consequences of aging that encourages ageist views. Ironic if so, as ageism is one of the hurdles we face when trying to direct more resources to help eliminate suffering and pain in aging. Most people would rather devote resources to any of the presently popular charitable causes instead, and you often hear arguments along the lines of "the old have had their fair innings at life." But are the old not people too?
Scholars argue about whether age stereotypes (beliefs about old people) are becoming more negative or positive over time. No previous study has systematically tested the trend of age stereotypes over more than 20 years, due to lack of suitable data. Our aim was to fill this gap by investigating whether age stereotypes have changed over the last two centuries and, if so, what may be associated with this change. We hypothesized that age stereotypes have increased in negativity due, in part, to the increasing medicalization of aging.
This study applied computational linguistics to the recently compiled Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), a database of 400 million words that includes a range of printed sources from 1810 to 2009. After generating a comprehensive list of synonyms for the term elderly for these years from two historical thesauri, we identified 100 collocates (words that co-occurred most frequently with these synonyms) for each of the 20 decades. Inclusion criteria for the collocates were: (1) appeared within four words of the elderly synonym, (2) referred to an old person, and (3) had a stronger association with the elderly synonym than other words appearing in the database for that decade. This yielded 13,100 collocates that were rated for negativity and medicalization.
We found that age stereotypes have become more negative in a linear way over 200 years. In 1880, age stereotypes switched from being positive to being negative. In addition, support was found for two potential explanations. Medicalization of aging and the growing proportion of the population over the age of 65 were both significantly associated with the increase in negative age stereotypes.