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As good as it gets? A new study by Elizabeth Markson, director of BU’s Gerontology Center, and research associate Carol Taylor has found that despite changing gender roles, cinematic images of older adults continue to be unrealistic, depicting men as youthful, vital figures and women as withered nonentities.

“Movie roles for older men and women have differed dramatically throughout the history of the medium, and continue to do so,” says Markson. “Older men are consistently depicted in films as vigorous, employed, and engaged in adventure. Older women, on the other hand, are relegated to peripheral roles, or play rich dowagers, wives, mothers, or spinsters.”

Markson and Taylor identified 3,038 films made between 1929 and 1995 in which actors and actresses nominated at least once during their lifetimes for an Oscar, appeared at the age of 60 or older. Using a random sample from this group, they examined the characters’ marital status, occupation, romantic or sexual interest, and involvement with family. They found that older men had a dynamic old age, with involvement in productive, task-oriented activities, whether as a business tycoon (Lionel Barry- more in Test Pilot, 1938), a pool shark (Paul Newman in The Color of Money, 1986), or a successful stay-at-home writer (60-year-old Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, 1997).

Women were often depicted as rich, even though government statistics show that old women are more likely to live in poverty than any other age group, or as less affluent wives and mothers. The cinematic older woman is often caricatured as domineering and interfering, such as affluent society matron Lucile Watson in Everybody Does It, 1949, or very much in the background, such as Shelly Knight, who plays the unemployed and romantically involved mother of Nicholson’s 34-year-old love interest in As Good As It Gets.

“Like Peter Pan, [men] remain youthful to the end. In contrast, females grow up and grow old,” the study concludes. “Clearly the message conveyed about older women in film throughout the past 65 years is that the place for both good and bad women is properly in the home, and if they are ‘good’ women, as either caretakers of others or background figures.”

The study appeared in the March 2000 issue of Aging and Society.

A drink a day reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s. Researchers at the BU School of Medicine have found that people who regularly consume alcoholic drinks had about half the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease (AD) when compared to nondrinkers.

The research team, led by Lindsay Farrer, evaluated the effects of smoking and alcohol consumption on the risk of developing AD among 238 diagnosed AD patients and 699 control subjects. The researchers found that moderate drinkers of alcohol (defined as up to two drinks a day for men and one for women) were 50 to 60 percent less likely to develop AD than those who consumed little or no alcohol.

“Alcohol consumption within these limits may offer some protection against developing Alzheimer’s disease, yet it would be premature to recommend this as a prophylaxis until the protective mechanism is fully understood,” says Farrer, a professor of medicine, neurology, and public health.

The association between smoking and the risk of developing AD produced results that were not as clear. While smokers and nonsmokers were equally likely to develop the disease, the researchers found that among women who carry a certain variant of the apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene, smokers were at a greater risk for developing AD than nonsmokers. In contrast, smoking afforded some protection against AD among women lacking the variant. In men there appeared to be no link between smoking and AD regardless of the APOE status.

“This unexpected pattern of association may be an example of how genetic and lifestyle factors conspire to increase or decrease risk of disease,” says Farrer.

The findings appear in the June issue of Alzheimer’s Reports.

"Research Briefs" is written by Joan Schwartz in the Office of the Provost. To read more about BU research, visit


15 May 2003
Boston University
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