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Actions Speak Louder Than Words

The saying “actions speak louder than words” is particularly relevant when examining societal attitudes toward aging. There is often a disconnect between what people say and do, revealing an underlying ambivalence with their beliefs. This inconsistency is evident in everyday behaviors, like health and wellness commitments. Many people talk about the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, emphasizing the need for regular exercise and a balanced diet while skipping workouts and eating unhealthy food. This inconsistency between advocating for health and failing to practice healthy habits illustrates the gap between what people say and what they do. The same principle applies to aging, where actions often contradict stated beliefs, demonstrating the truth of this adage.

The Misleading Focus on Age

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In today’s society, ageism is a pervasive issue, often overshadowing the real concerns that should be addressed. A glaring example is the focus on President Joe Biden’s age in discussions about his ability to lead. However, this fixation on his age diverts attention from a more pertinent issue: his health condition. I want to highlight the importance of evaluating actions and health rather than using age as a blanket judgment.

President Joe Biden, at 81, is frequently scrutinized for his age, with critics questioning his capacity to perform his presidential duties. However, it is crucial to differentiate between age and health. The challenges he faces are not a result of his age but are likely linked to a specific health condition. This distinction is essential to avoid perpetuating ageist stereotypes that older individuals are inherently less capable.

Health Conditions and Age: The Case of Bruce Willis

Consider the case of Bruce Willis, diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia in his 60s. The public discourse surrounding his condition rarely fixates on his age. Instead, it centers on the impact of dementia on his life and career. This approach allows for a more compassionate and accurate understanding of his situation, highlighting the necessity of addressing the specific health challenges rather than attributing them to age.

Early-Onset Conditions: Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s Diagnosis

Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 29. The discussions about his condition have focused on the disease itself and its effects on his life and work, not his age. This perspective underscores that health conditions can affect individuals at any stage of life, and it is the condition—not the age—that should be the primary concern.

The Need for a Shift in Perspective

When we focus solely on age, we risk overshadowing the real issues at hand. Age should not be used as a catch-all explanation for health-related challenges. Instead, we should look at the specific diagnoses and how they impact an individual’s abilities and actions. This approach promotes a more nuanced understanding and combats ageism by acknowledging that health conditions can affect anyone, regardless of age.

Our age perspective has progressed, but we take it for granted. Consider the Rolling Stones: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are both 80, with the “youngster” of the band, Ronnie Wood, at 77. In May 2024, Lindsay Zoladz reported in The New York Times that the Stones might never stop performing. We also see public figures like Rupert Murdoch, Maxine Waters, William Shatner, Morgan Freeman, and Martin Scorsese—whose latest film “Killers of the Flower Moon” was released in 2023— celebrated for their ongoing contributions despite societal tendencies to denigrate aging.

Biden’s Leadership and Health

Returning to President Biden, assessing his leadership based on his actions and policies rather than his age is crucial. The focus should be on his ability to perform his duties and the specific health challenges he faces. Doing so can give us a more constructive and informed discussion about his presidency and health. This will also help us from taking a large leap backward in our battle to combat ageism.

Breaking the Ageism Cycle

Addressing ageism requires a shift in how we talk about age and health. We can foster a more inclusive and accurate discourse by focusing on actions and specific health conditions rather than using age as a blanket judgment. Whether it’s Biden, Willis, or Fox, the emphasis should be on understanding and addressing the real issues, not perpetuating ageist stereotypes. In doing so, we can create a more compassionate and informed society that is better equipped to support individuals facing health challenges at any stage of life.

Words Lag Behind Actions

While we aren’t quite there yet, our actions are more closely aligned with our words than they were a few decades ago. Some actions are Moving away from ageism, but our language has yet to catch up. Society’s evolving appreciation for the contributions of older individuals signals a positive shift, yet the conversation around aging needs to align with these actions. Acknowledging and addressing ageism in our words will help foster a more inclusive and respectful perspective on aging, ultimately benefiting us all.

We are making progress. We now see a wide range of individuals at the top of their game who are older than 75, from world leaders running for U.S. President to Warren Buffet, one of the wealthiest men in the world. Actors like Jane Fonda and Betty White made 80+ look fantastic on screen. Jennifer Lopez, in her mid 50’s has replaced the Golden Girls Rue McClanahan’s mid 50’s comedic sexy role with a sex symbol role.

Ageism is unique because it is a prejudice we all face, directed against our future selves. The fear of aging—encompassing concerns about physical and cognitive decline—often overshadows the emotional and cognitive gains that come with growing older. Negative talk about aging persists, yet actions increasingly contradict this narrative. Our perception of what constitutes “old” changes as we age. As a child, 18 might seem old; at 18, 30 seems old; and at 30, 50 seems old. This evolving perception influences how we act versus how we speak. We have a way to go, but we’ve come a long way, baby!

The Right Side of 40 is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

Originally Published on

Deborah Heiser, PhD The Right Side of 40

Deborah Heiser, PhD is an Applied Developmental Psychologist with a specialty in Aging. I'm a researcher, TEDx speaker, contributor for Psychology Today, Substack blogger, CEO of The Mentor Project, and adjunct professor of Psychology.

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