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photos suggest growing bias against Aging
COLUMBUS, Ohio – A new study that looked at obituary
photographs published in one metropolitan
newspaper suggests that
Americans may have become more biased toward
youthful appearance, particularly for 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.
And 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 the obituary
photographs surveyed in the
The Plain Dealer (a daily newspaper in
Cleveland, Ohio) were “age-inappropriate” –
meaning they showed the deceased at least 15
years younger than when they died. By 1997,
the number had increased to 36 percent of
the surveyed obit photos.
“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
Anderson conducted the study with Jina Han,
a graduate student in social work at Ohio
State. Their results appear in the current
Omega-Journal of Death and Dying.
The researchers looked at obituary photos in
The Plain Dealer – which has the largest
circulation of any newspaper in Ohio -- in
1967, 1977, 1987, and 1997. They didn’t
examine more recent photos because the
newspaper changed the format of its obituary
pages, making it impossible to make accurate
comparisons after 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
He separated the text and photos before
continuing the analysis.
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“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,” Anderson said.
Anderson estimated the ages of the people in
the photographs and compared his estimates
to their age at death as listed in the
obituary. If the deceased were more than 15
years older than the estimated age in the
photograph, the photos were labeled as
Anderson said his estimates of ages in the
photographs are necessarily subjective. But
he took several steps to increase his
For one, he had his co-author estimate ages
in some of the photos, and checked to ensure
their estimates were similar. If they were
unable to come to an agreement, the photo
was listed as age-accurate.
In addition, Anderson conducted an exercise
before doing the study in which he estimated
the ages of people in photographs for which
he could confirm the actual age of those
shown. Within the 15-year window, he was
accurate more than four out of five times.
Results of the study showed that
age-inaccurate photos increased steadily
each decade: from 17 percent (1967) to 27
percent (1977) to 30 percent (1987) and
finally to 36 percent (1997).
The researchers found that each additional
year in age at time of death increased the
odds of having an age-inaccurate obituary
Most strikingly, women were more than twice
as likely as men to have an obituary
photograph that was age-inaccurate.
“Aging is a double whammy for women, who get
hit with more ageism and sexism,” Anderson
Anderson said it is likely that either
spouses or adult children of the deceased
chose the photographs that accompanied the
They understandably wanted to choose a photo
that they thought represented their spouse
or parent at his or her peak, he said. But
what is remarkable is how we as a society
define these peak years, and how that
definition has changed over time.
“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,”
In addition to ageism, Anderson said there
may be another factor in the growing use of
age-inaccurate obit photos. Although there
is no way to prove it, he said individuals
may be living longer with chronic illnesses,
and obituary photos may be selected that
show these people in younger, healthier
But Anderson said he believes this couldn’t
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,”