May 14, 2009

New Study Finds Bias In Aging Faces

New research into obituary photographs at a metropolitan newspaper shows Americans are more biased towards youthful appearance, especially in women.

The study found that the number of obituary photographs showing the deceased at a much younger age than when he or she died more than doubled between 1967 and 1997.

Researchers found women were more than twice as likely as men to have an obituary photo from when they were much younger.

In 1967, about 17 percent of obituary photographs in The Plain Dealer, a daily newspaper in Cleveland, OH, showed the deceased at least 15 years younger than when they died. Thirty years later that figure had jumped to 36 percent.

This change in obituary photographs reflects a shift in societal attitudes toward age, researchers say.

"Obituaries and their photographs are one reflection of our society at a particular moment in time," said Keith Anderson, co-author of the study and assistant professor of social work at Ohio State University.

"In this case, we can get hints about our views on aging and appearance from the photographs chosen for obituaries.  Our findings suggest that we were less accepting of aging in the 1990s than we were back in the 60s."

Researchers estimated the deceased's age in a total of 400 obituary photographs from 1967, 1977, 1987, and 1997.

Beginning in February of each of those four years, Anderson printed copies of the first 100 obituaries of local residents that had photos, for a total of 400 obituaries in the study.

He separated the text and photos before continuing the analysis.

The photos were labeled as "age-inaccurate" if the person was more than 15 years older at the time of death than in the photograph.  

Anderson said it is likely that either spouses or adult children of the deceased chose the photographs that accompanied the obituaries.

"Adult children are thinking they want a picture of Dad when he was at his best "“ and, especially in the late 1990s, that was significantly younger than we he died.  And the discrepancy was even larger for women," he said.

In addition to ageism, Anderson said there might be another factor in the growing use of age-inaccurate obit photos.  

He said its hard to prove, but individuals may be living longer with chronic illnesses, and obituary photos may be chosen to show these people in younger, healthier times.

Still, Anderson said he believes this does not account for all the change the study found between 1967 and 1997.

"Ageism seems to be increasing over time, despite our growing awareness of the issue," he said.

Anderson and graduate student Jina Han detailed the study's results in the current issue of the Omega-Journal of Death and Dying.


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Omega-Journal of Death and Dying