Findings explore the connection between negative senior portrayals on TV and their effect on mental and physical health
New research reveals that the most highly rated programs on television feature frequent ageist language and underrepresentation of seniors and explores possible health implications of ageism. These findings were uncovered through an ongoing partnership between health and well-being company Humana Inc. and the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg.
Led by Stacy L. Smith, USC’s study analyzed 1,609 speaking characters in the most popular Nielsen-rated television shows that aired between June 1, 2016 and May 31, 2017 to determine how characters aged 60 and over are portrayed. In tandem, Humana conducted a quantitative survey of people aged 60 and over to explore their thoughts on aging, specifically to understand which attributes are directly linked to better health.
Both studies examined ageism, and the results indicate that it potentially has a negative impact not only on optimism, self-esteem and confidence, but also the physical and mental health of aging Americans.
The research also finds that among seniors who experience frequent ageism, optimists have far fewer unhealthy days, regardless of the amount of ageism they experience. This suggests one way to combat the negative impact of ageism is to be more optimistic.
A deeper analysis of the findings revealed:
Even in the highest-rated television programs, aging characters are underrepresented and stereotypically portrayed.
- Only 9.4 percent of all speaking characters were 60 years of age or over – despite seniors representing 19.9 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2015 U.S. Census.
Stereotypical, ageist language is prevalent in the shows. Some choice quotes include: “Things just sound creepier when you’re old,” and “You like the color? It’s called ‘ancient ivory,’ like you.”
Of shows featuring a main senior character, 41 percent contained one or more ageist comments. Of those series with ageist comments, 62.5 percent had remarks that came from characters speaking to a senior, while 68.8 percent contained self-deprecating dialogue delivered by seniors to themselves.
Shows without a writer or showrunner age 60 or over were more likely to feature ageism than shows with a writer or showrunner age 60 or over.
There are inherent consequences to these stereotyped portrayals of aging Americans – including a potentially negative impact on seniors’ sense of self-esteem, confidence and optimism, as well as their health.
Seniors who experience ageism once a week or more report having 4.6 more physically unhealthy days and 5.4 more mentally unhealthy days per month than respondents who rarely or never report experiencing ageism.
Seniors who experience ageism once a week or more reported that it had a moderately negative impact on their sense of self-esteem, confidence and optimism, scoring the impact of ageism on their self-esteem at nearly 6 on a 10-point scale.
Aging Americans who describe themselves as optimists feel better about their overall health and well-being, underscoring the importance of an optimistic mindset for healthy aging.
Among seniors who report experiencing frequent ageism (once a week or more), optimists have, on average, 4 fewer physical and 3 fewer mental unhealthy days each month.
And, of all survey respondents, those who rate themselves as most optimistic feel on average 12.5 years younger than their actual age.
“We’ve studied this in film, but the lack of senior representation and prevalence of ageism on the small screen counters the idea that TV is better than film,” said Professor Smith, director of the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative. “There’s obviously more work to be done in the entertainment industry—seniors are often left out of the conversation on inclusion. This study speaks to the need for increasing older storytellers behind the camera who can create more authentic senior characters on-screen.”
Dr. Yolangel Hernandez Suarez, vice president and chief medical officer of care delivery at Humana, added: “Understanding the social determinants of health is a key priority for Humana. That’s why we’re committed to advancing societal perceptions and promoting aging with optimism. Our survey and continued partnership with the University of Southern California demonstrate the power of an optimistic mindset for combating ageism and embracing healthy aging.”
Both Stacy L. Smith and Dr. Yolangel Hernandez Suarez will provide more insight on each respective study as panelists at The Atlantic Live! New Old Age conference in New York City, slated for October 2017.
About the Humana Quantitative Analysis
The quantitative survey includes 2,000 responses from U.S. adults aged 60 and older. Respondents represent a nationally-representative sample of older adults based on U.S. Census statistics for age, gender, geographic region, and race/ethnicity. It was conducted between August 13- 17, 2017, and was designed to assess perceptions of retirement, ageism and what motivates these people to stay healthy as they age. Other data collected include general self-assessment of health, activity levels and perception of aging in popular culture.
About the USC Television Study
The USC study is comprised of two samples of popular television series airing between June 1, 2016 and May 31, 2017. Popularity was determined based on Nielsen Average Audience Rating Percentage. The first sample includes the 50 most popular television series among viewers age 18-49. The second sample includes the 50 most popular television series among viewers age 65 and older. Across both samples, 72 unique series were evaluated. Both quantitative and qualitative methods were used in the study to assess the portrayal of senior characters. For quantitative measures, the first episode of each series was analyzed and every speaking or named character on screen was evaluated for measures including gender, race/ethnicity, LGBT status, and age. Following this, a series of measures regarding jobs and health were assessed to catalogue the depiction of characters age 60 and older across these stories. Finally, a qualitative analysis of main (i.e., leading, supporting, and series regular) senior characters was performed.
Humana Inc. is committed to helping our millions of medical and specialty members achieve their best health. Our successful history in care delivery and health plan administration is helping us create a new kind of integrated care with the power to improve health and well-being and lower costs. Our efforts are leading to a better quality of life for people with Medicare, families, individuals, military service personnel, and communities at large.
To accomplish that, we support physicians and other health care professionals as they work to deliver the right care in the right place for their patients, our members. Our range of clinical capabilities, resources and tools – such as in-home care, behavioral health, pharmacy services, data analytics and wellness solutions – combine to produce a simplified experience that makes health care easier to navigate and more effective.
More information regarding Humana is available to investors via the Investor Relations page of the company’s web site at www.humana.com, including copies of:
- Annual reports to stockholders
- Securities and Exchange Commission filings
- Most recent investor conference presentations
- Quarterly earnings news releases and conference calls
- Calendar of events
- Corporate Governance information
About USC Annenberg Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative
The Media Diversity & Social Change Initiative (MDSCI) at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is a leading think tank studying diversity in entertainment through original and sponsored research. MDSCI findings create valuable and sought after research based solutions that advance equality in entertainment. Dr. Stacy L. Smith is the Founder and Director of the MDSCI. Dr. Smith and the MDSCI examine gender, race/ethnicity, LGBT, and disability on screen and gender and race/ethnicity behind the camera in cinematic content as well as barriers and opportunities facing women and people of color in the entertainment industry. The MDSCI also conducts economic analyses related to diversity and the financial performance of films. In 2015, Dr. Smith was named the #1 Most Influential Person in Los Angeles by LA Weekly. Dr. Smith has written more than 100 journal articles, book chapters, and reports on content patterns and effects of the media. In terms of the popular press, Dr. Smith’s research has been written about in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, Newsweek, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and NPR. She has a co-edited essay in Maria Shriver’s book, A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything (2009). Dr. Smith and the MDSCI’s most recent research reports include an analysis of 900 top-grossing films, the Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment (CARD) and a series of landmark studies with Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles. To learn more, visit http://annenberg.usc.edu/mdsci or follow on Twitter @MDSCInitiative.