Who dies of covid-19?

If you answered “the elderly,” you’re right, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reports that 8 out of 10 of the people who have died of covid-19 in the United States so far were 65 and older. But that doesn’t mean older adults are weak.

Instead, Paul Nash, a gerontologist, and Phillip W. Schnarrs, a public health expert, argue that ageism has increased their susceptibility to the disease.

Nash, an associate professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California, and Schnarrs, an associate professor of population health at the University of Texas at Austin, say that ageist perceptions of seniors as helpless and expendable affect how they’re cared for, and how many of them die of covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Because older people are more likely to have the underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus, they write, they suffer more from policies that overlook their needs as a population or focus solely on young people.

Comments that demean and discriminate against older people don’t help, their article, published on The Conversation, says. The authors cite Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s March 24 comment that as a senior citizen he was willing to risk death for a reopened economy. The suggestion that elderly people sacrifice their lives for the sake of a revived economy, they say, sets the stage for public health disparities. So do thoughtless jokes that perpetuate the mistaken impression that older adults are simply waiting for death.

“The COVID-19 emergency gives us the opportunity to examine health inequalities in the U.S.,” they write. “It gives us a chance to look again at the way Americans view and treat older people. And it lets us look at how pitting generations against one another only leads to disaster.”

Their comments don’t just draw attention to the problem, they suggest some practical solutions that could improve outcomes for older adults. To read Nash and Schnarrs’s take on the ways ageism harms older adults, visit bit.ly/COVIDageism.