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Ageism – our most popular prejudice

Two authoritative reports published this week have confirmed, in forensic detail, how one section of the British public is routinely and systematically discriminated against. As a result, thousands are dying prematurely. Those who live are likely to work less, drink more, be more depressed and be considerably more stupid than their counterparts in America.

The group, of course, is the old. Our society, more perhaps than any other in the Western world, is bored by people over 65. Individually, oldsters may be fine, but as a demographic group, they somehow do not count. A feeling percolates outwards, from government through the health service into everyday life, that, beyond a certain age, a citizen’s duty is to accept his or her lot and sit patiently in death’s waiting room.

The two studies tell remarkably similar stories. For the first, researchers from three universities tested 8,299 Americans aged 65 or over, and 5,276 Britons of a similar age, health and background.

They discovered that the average cognitive capacity of British pensioners between 65 and 74 is actually lower than that of Americans a decade or more older than them. Not only were the Americans mentally 10 years younger than the Britons, but the differential increases dramatically with age.

The research revealed significantly higher levels of depression in the British sample, and considerably greater dependence on alcohol.

The second report is, if anything, even more shaming. The United Kingdom tops the charts when it comes to premature deaths from cancer among people who are over 75. According to the National Cancer Intelligence Network, as many as 15,000 early deaths from cancer every year are avoidable in this group. No Western country is in the same league as us. When, in 1995-97, figures were recorded for cancer deaths per 100,000 people aged between 75 and 84, there were 1,625 in Britain, compared to 1,407 in the United States and 1,414 in Western Europe.

Since then, incredibly, the gap between us and the rest of the world has widened. The figures declined by 12.1 per cent in Western Europe, for example – a reduction more than double what we have achieved.

With dreary inevitability, doctors have put the blame on the public. The old, they argue, should learn to report their symptoms earlier.

The truth is altogether more brutal. It is there every night on TV. It is to be seen in politics where anyone daring to break the stranglehold of middle age on high office is ruthlessly cut down to size . This very week John Bercow took the trouble to sneer at older Tories in his campaigning speech for the post of Speaker.

Perhaps more importantly, the prejudice is in the workplace and in job interviews (researchers for the survey into brain health found that Americans tended to retire, or be retired, later than Britons). It is lurking behind satire shows, stand-up acts and in cartoons: it was the ultra-cool cartoonist Steve Bell who helped destroy Menzies Cambell’s career by portraying him in a zimmer-frame, without his teeth, as a skull. Ageism is the one prejudice which remains at the height of liberal fashion.

Above all, anti-age bias is to be found in the National Health Service among doctors making those tricky cost-benefit decisions which by their nature work against older patients.

So the new surveys are telling us what we already know. We live in an intensely middle-aged culture. The British are not over-fond of youth. As for the old, they are simply irrelevant.

A seedy offering for sex-obsessed times

High concept is the catchphrase to remember if you are planning to get a book published. The modern publisher likes to be offered a project with a catchy idea which can be summarised in a phrase. Hephzibah Anderson’s high concept was simple. She would not have sex for a year. It paid off. Lip-smacking extracts of this non-bonkathon have appeared in two national newspapers, both adorned by a photograph of the author looking up from a bed like someone whose year of chastity is well and truly up, see left.

What strange, sex- obsessed times we are living through. Hundreds of thousands of people do not have sex, sometimes for quite long periods of time. Most would not dream of writing an entire book about their non-experience.

Perhaps Anderson is a different case. Her book Chastened may be a great anti-erotic masterpiece, but the way it – and she – have been marketed feels distinctly seedy.

How much did Beeb pay this twit?

As Mark Thompson bravely agrees to reveal the salaries of the BBC’s top executives, viewers of the feel-bad reality show Filthy, Rich and Homeless will have a more urgent question: how much have licence-payers paid the goofy Marquess of Blandford for his brief, disastrous appearance in the show?

One of the five public figures required to sleep rough on the streets of London, Blandford conformed hilariously to type. In front of his stately pile, he brayingly name-dropped the Churchill family connection, then sulked on the programme, cheated by checking into a hotel and swore at the programme makers. At one point he even seemed to be parading his druggy past as a badge of credibility.

If nothing else, the programme has reminded the British public just how unattractive privileged spinelessness can be. All the same, it would be good to know how much of our money went to this twit.