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Ageism in the Media Is Seen as Harmful to Health of the Elderly


WASHINGTON — Television ads depicting aging baby boomers as "greedy geezers" and news stories calling older audiences "a bad omen for advertising revenues" pose serious risks for the elderly and may even shorten lifespan, a panel of experts on aging testified Wednesday.

The panelists, appearing before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, castigated media and marketing executives for bombarding audiences with what they said are negative images of aging in print, on television and on the big screen. What's worse, they said, is most people internalize these images without realizing how damaging they can be on an older person's finances, relationships and physical and mental health.

"Extolling youthfulness while demeaning the old helps to generate images that, as our research suggests, may have devastating consequences," Becca R. Levy, an epidemiologist at Yale University, told committee Chairman Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.) and other senators at the hearing.

Levy presented the findings of a 20-year study published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found that older people with positive perceptions of aging lived 7 1/2 years longer than those exposed to negative images of aging. Researchers interviewed 660 people over the course of the study, tracking longevity and how participants' self-images were affected as they grew older.

Levy acknowledged that media and marketing are not solely to blame for promoting ageism. But Levy and the other panelists agreed that the two industries are the most pervasive, systematic and identifiable sources of images that are detrimental to older audiences.

The warnings come as 77 million baby boomers--those born in the 18 years after World War II--reach retirement age. With birthrates on the decline and life expectancy increasing, this population is poised to become the largest group of consumers, especially in the pharmaceutical market.

Panelist Robert Snyder, a senior partner at Mature Market Group, a Dallas research and marketing firm, stressed the importance of catering to the longevity needs of older consumers who hold substantial purchasing power.

Television commercials shown at Wednesday's hearing, however, depicted older Americans in sometimes deplorable ways. One commercial, for example, showed an older woman exposing herself after an auto parts employee tells her the shop offers a lifetime guarantee on certain auto parts.

Breaux expressed dismay at seemingly contradictory marketing strategies that target younger consumers while neglecting older Americans who compose a major segment of the market. "The media and marketing industries ignore the purchasing power and preferences of millions of baby boomers and seniors across the country--a population that controls three-fourths of the nation's wealth."

The hearing took on a sympathetic tone when Emmy-winning actress Doris Roberts, 71, who stars as the sharp-tongued, nosy mother in the television series "Everybody Loves Raymond," told the committee she thought society considered her opinions "irrelevant."

"My peers and I are portrayed as dependent, helpless, unproductive and demanding rather than deserving," she said. "This is not just a sad situation.... This is a crime."

Panelists and committee members said more public awareness and a reevaluation of American values are needed to begin embracing older Americans.

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