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In this lesson, we will explore a handful of aging processes that are different when a researcher compares them by ethnicity. This includes the changes in skin, health, and religion.

Ethnicity and Culture

It is not uncommon to hear someone claiming to be race-blind or color-blind. On one hand, it is good that we are moving away from things like the beating of Rodney King and into a more sensitive world. On the other hand, claiming to not see race and sometimes blatantly ignoring it can cause issues. If we are ignoring all race, ethnic, and cultural issues, then we are ignoring statistics because certain ethnic groups are prone to certain medical conditions or patterns in aging.

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Culture can also have an impact on how a person ages. However, this isn’t quite as easy to pin down as ethnicity. Sometimes the two overlap; sometimes there are subgroups that are difficult to define.Let’s examine a handful of the most obvious ways that a person’s ethnicity and culture can affect them as they age.

Skin

Let’s start somewhere simple and obvious: skin. Skin color is by far the most likely thing we will think of, and describe, when we discuss ethnicity.

However, when you look closely, all that is different is the amount of melanin in the skin that gives it the darker tones. This darker and lighter tone can actually have a tremendous impact on what someone’s skin looks like as they age.Over time, skin loses elasticity due to the reduced production of collagen and elastin. This means it loses some of its fullness and bounce as you get older, leading to the trademark wrinkles. When you combine this with the damaging effects of sunlight on skin, then the wrinkles and skin damage is multiplied. However, if a person’s ethnicity has a high level of melanin, then this absorbs the sun’s radiation and reduces the damage. This is why people with darker skin seem to age so well.

When we look at culture, we see that groups who spend more time outside are often exposed to the sun more, and thus have more sun-damaged skin. Cultures that include farmers and those who tend to work outside tend to have some of the most damaged skin, while others emphasize staying inside or slathering on SPF 50 and tend to have less damaged skin.

General Health

Minority, ethnicity, culture, and lower socioeconomic status are often correlated together, so saying something about one effectively says something about the others.

Lower socioeconomic status translates into an inability to access high-end medical treatment. It also tends to mean a diet higher in harmful chemicals and preservatives. This all combines to mean lower general health as a person ages due to the general wear on the body by these chemicals and an inability to access medical care that might be able to prevent some of these issues.Furthermore, when we examine this over a lifetime, we see that minorities are often side-tracked into lower-paying professions that have a tendency to be harder on the body. Manual labor and grunt work offers the one-two punch of being back breaking and paying very little. In terms of sheer numbers, for every 100,000 black and white men, over 17,000 more white males will see age 65 than black males.

Over 10,000 more white males will see age 85 than black males. This is a large enough difference to not just be due to random chance. It tells us that black men are less likely to see older age due to the aforementioned issues: lack of access to medical care, poorer health due to diet, and often more difficult and strenuous types of work.

Religion

Not everything about aging is physical; sometimes there are changes that occur in a metaphysical way. Religion will often become more central to a person as they become older, particularly in communities that have difficulty communicating with the larger culture. This means that those who speak less English in the United States are more likely to find comfort and friendship in their church, a place of community and communal language. Or, those who have had strong and positive experiences with their church are likely to continue to stay and become more involved.Religion creates and fosters a connection between individuals as they age. Many continue to attend the same or a similar church as they grow older and will develop long-lasting relationships with the other members as well as their spiritual leader.

This relationship building helps to reinforce social, political, economic, and spiritual growth in the individual. With the individual staying, they in turn will help reinforce the next generation.When looking at the ethnic aspects of religion, minority elders often become integral and meaningful parts of their religious group. Whereas in the larger culture they may be placed in the back due to their advancing age as well as minority status, in their religious life, they become someone very valued and respected. This does not hold true as strongly for the majority ethnic group.

Lesson Summary

The aging process becomes very complex when ethnicity and culture are involved. Even simple aging of skin can become modified by the presence of more melanin in the skin. Culture, too, plays a part in the process as those who spend more time outside are likely to develop more sun damage.When it comes to general health, the system simplifies some. Ethnicity, minority, socioeconomic status, and culture all come close to being interchangeable when describing the negative impact on the individual. Minority often equates to lower socioeconomic status and thus a lowered ability to purchase medicine and maintain one’s body through the consumption of healthy foods. Furthermore, many minorities are placed in low-paying and back-breaking work, further increasing the disparity.

Religion becomes more central as people become older, particularly in minorities and non-dominant cultures. Those who have difficulty connecting with the larger culture often find themselves drawn to their religious center, where they will find a communal language and those who hold similar political and spiritual backgrounds. Furthermore, as people age, they may find themselves placing their religious experiences above other aspects of their life. This, in turn, causes the person to become a leader and important part of their religious center.

Learning Outcomes

After this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Describe how the aging process can be affected by ethnicity and culture
  • Explain how ethnicity, minority, socioeconomic status, and culture all relate to health and longevity
  • Summarize the role religion plays in the aging process

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