Does Your Race Determine How You Feel About Getting Older?
How older adults think about aging can matter for their health. Studies have made the link between negative attitudes towards aging and risk for all manner of problems, from heart disease and diabetes to impaired cognitive function, wellbeing, even mortality. It is less clear whether this effect is universal or if it is dependent on an individuals' socio-cultural context.
In other words, does race matter for how older adults think about aging?
I began to answer this question when I joined Dr. David Weiss in the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center as research assistant in fall of 2015 to look at differences in perceptions of aging between older Americans by race. We recruited African-American and white adults age 50 and older to participate in attention and memory tasks, and to answer age-related questions about status and identity.
We found that older African Americans in our study did not perceive a loss in social status related to their age; this was a sharp contrast with their white counterparts who felt their status had diminished as they got older. Also, whether or not black participants identified with their older age groups did not seem to affect their self-esteem. We also found that feeling younger and not identifying with individuals of your age group was only associated with higher levels of self-esteem among whites, not black older adults.
One explanation of these findings is that groups already experiencing discrimination—like women, racial minorities, and other minorities—may not experience a sudden social status change because of age. In addition, aging is not associated with social devaluation among black adults because exposure to racial discrimination across a lifespan may act as a protective factor for other forms of discrimination.
These findings fly in the face of accepted wisdom, which lumps older adults together as one group of people rather than taking into account their socio-economic status or racial makeup. Many interventions are based on the benefits of feeling young and doing youthful things, but research shows that there are other factors that can influence an older adult’s mental health. Going forward, I hope the public health community will consider this study when creating anti-ageism interventions.
I presented the poster on the results compiled by Deirdre Robertson, professor Weiss, and myself at a conference for the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) in New Orleans this past November. The primary focus of the conference was to change attitudes about aging and to expand the possibilities for research and interventions. While this is preliminary research, we are currently exploring these results further by focusing on the link between aging attitudes and health in black older adults. Our aim is to identify ways to capitalize on the more positive aging attitudes in this group.
The results of our work are being drafted for publication, and I am also using them for my thesis.
As an African American, I want to use the skills and resources I’ve gained here to help me pursue my dream of eradicating health disparities in the black community. After getting my MPH at Mailman, I plan to land a fellowship position and apply for doctoral programs in Epidemiology to sharpen my epidemiological skills. Ultimately, I want to work to prevent chronic diseases in minority populations.
Racial and ethnic disparities in health and mortality in older adults are preventable. Attitudes towards aging represent a factor we can change to improve the health of older populations. We need to consider the social factors of aging to prevent disease trajectories and decrease suffering towards the end of life.
Taylar Peoples was born and raised in Pompano Beach, Florida, and studied Psychology at the University of Central Florida. She became interested in epidemiology after working with low income couples and families coping with chronic illness at the UCF Marriage & Family Research Institute.
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