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In US counties, the more bias against older people, the longer people are living

 Members of the Holyoke Council on Aging and Senior Center pose for a photo at the center in Holyoke, Mass.
Holyoke Council on Aging and Senior Center
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Members of the Holyoke Council on Aging and Senior Center pose for a photo at the center in Holyoke, Mass.

Using data from people living in more than 3,000 counties in the U.S., researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst looked at age bias and found results opposite of what they expected, said Allecia Reid a professor of psychological and brain sciences,

"In this particular study, we essentially had a single item in a national database that asked people, to what extent do you prefer — and on one end we have younger adults and on the other end we have older adults," Reid said.

The expectation was mortality rates in communities with high ageism would be in line with communities where there's racial bias, where people don't live as long Reid said. The difference from race or other categories may be — being old is not life long.

"So when we look at racial minorities, sexual minorities, these are not new things for folks," Reid said, "and so we think about the fact that ageism is one of those things where we're kind of in the protected group for most of our lives. Then as we get into the 60, 65 and older range, now we're suddenly in a stigmatized group we didn't belong to before."

The data came from Harvard University's Project Implicit and Reid said their analysis had various controls, including for political ideology and geographical mobility.

"I think there is often a tendency, especially say in New England, for us to deal with older adults by having nursing homes available, and moving elder care out to other spaces," Reid said, "whereas in the South it might be more common for elders to age at home."

People in more conservative leaning counties had a more positive view of older adults than liberals.

"When we look at our maps, [we] can see that there's this sort of clustering of high levels of bias, especially in New England, in California, and relatively low levels of ageism in states [like], Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Those are also places that we know tend to have higher mortality."

The results of this study, and one other study on ageism Reid said she's aware of, opens the door to find out what they're actually capturing.

"What might be producing these better health outcomes in these more ageist communities," Reid said, "and down the road, that really [could] give us some indication of how all communities could do a better job of promoting the health of their residents."

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."