New Study of Midlife and Older Gay Men Links “Internalized Gay Ageism” with Depressive Symptoms

“Internalized gay ageism,” or the sense that one may feel denigrated or depreciated because of aging in the context of a gay male identity, is associated with negative mental outcomes, according to a new study published in Social Science & Medicine.

Prior research has shown that youth, vigor and physical attractiveness are disproportionately valued in the gay male community, leaving many to experience a sense of “accelerated aging.” This study explores how ageism and homophobia are jointly internalized by gay men, whether these feelings affect their mental health, and whether a sense of “mattering” (the degree to which they feel they are important to others and a significant part of the world around them) offsets any mental health deficits associated with internalized gay ageism.

The study is based on data recently collected from 312 gay-identified men who have been participating in the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study since 1984. The men ranged in age from 48 to 78 years (the average age was 61 years) and 61 percent were HIV-negative. Three decades of depressive symptoms data were included in the analysis to help strengthen the direction of the observed findings.

Key findings from the study include:

• Internalized gay ageism can reliably be measured among these men with a new scale that includes agreement/disagreement with statements such as, “Aging is especially hard for me because I am a gay man,” “As I get older, I feel more invisible when I am with other gay men,” and “As I get older I feel pressured to look younger than my age.”

• Internalized gay ageism is differentiated from both perceived ageism and internalized homophobia, meaning it is a stand-alone minority stress construct uniquely informative of the lived experiences of these men.

• Internalized gay ageism is positively associated with current depressive symptoms independent of an array of other factors that also may influence depressive symptoms, including depressive symptom history.

• One’s sense of “mattering” partially explains the association between internalized gay ageism and depressive symptoms.

Aging within the context of a gay male identity merits greater consideration in the development of clinical- and community-based efforts designed to support midlife and older gay men, whose numbers are increasing substantially as part of the aging baby boomer generation. Public health interventions that boost these men’s sense of mattering may offset the damaging effects of internalized gay ageism. Future research with large population-based samples is needed that expands how internalized gay ageism is measured and how it may be associated with other stress processes and health outcomes.

The lead author of the report is Richard G. Wight, a former Williams Institute Visiting Scholar and Researcher in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.  In addition to Wight, co-authors of the report are Allen J. LeBlanc, Professor at the Health Equity Institute at San Francisco State University; Ilan H. Meyer, Williams Distinguished Senior Scholar of Public Policy at the Williams Institute; and Frederick A. Harig, doctoral student in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Click here for the full report.

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