How Ageism Hurts Us All

Three senior men sitting on a porch, talking, smiling and laughing


Ageism is the belief that older people are somehow inferior to those who are young. According the World Health Organization, ageism is most rampant in high-income countries, like the United States. Americans, as a whole, place great value on youth, beauty, vitality and the ability to earn a large income. Aging is often seen as a debilitating process that robs people of these high-prized attributes.

In one study, 70 percent of older adults said they had been insulted or mistreated because of their age. This can take the form of a server asking a senior’s younger companion what the senior would like rather than addressing the senior herself or by the numerous portrayals in popular media of elders as crabby, incompetent, and superfluous.

Ageism and Health

The negative impact of ageism has been well-documented. Stress, depression and a higher risk of heart disease result when seniors internalize negative messages from the media and from people around them. Older people who feel they are a burden to others see their lives as less valuable, increasing their risk of isolation and depression. Ageism can cause a damaging cycle: marginalization leads to low self-esteem, which in turn accelerates withdrawal and physical decline. A study from Yale showed that negative beliefs about aging may be linked to brain changes related to Alzheimer’s disease – specifically, people who had more negative thoughts about aging had a significantly greater number of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, two conditions associated with Alzheimer’s. Another Yale study showed that positive attitudes about aging could extend one’s life by 7-1/2 years – a greater lifespan gain than from low cholesterol, low blood pressure, maintaining a healthy weight, or even being a nonsmoker!

The Economic Impact

Ageism causes damage in other meaningful ways. Age discrimination in the workforce is sending many seniors into poverty. While The Age Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA) makes it illegal to discriminate against workers age 40 and over, as many as 2/3 of workers between the ages of 45 and 74 say they have experienced age discrimination at work. Older workers who lose a job spend a longer time unemployed than their younger counterparts and if they do find another job, it usually pays less that the one they left. And while the “official” unemployment rate for those 55 and older hovers around 3.5 percent, an analysis by Time Magazine revealed that when you factor in those working part-time who would rather be working full-time and those who have given up looking for work altogether, the unemployment rates reaches a whopping 12 percent. According to the National Council on Aging, more than 25 million Americans aged 60 or older are economically insecure.

Ageism Is Harmful Even for the Young

If the health and emotional well-being of the seniors in our life isn’t motivation enough to check our attitudes, consider this – research by Yale School of Public Health shows that younger people also are damaged by these negative beliefs. The study found a striking link between ageism in early life and poor health later on. When younger people talk about seniors as “a burden,” make ugly jokes about the physical changes of aging, or hold unflattering stereotypes of the worth of older people, they reduce their own chances of healthy aging. Some experts believe this is because those who do not look forward to their later years are less likely to be mindful of their health. It’s never too late – or too early – to update our attitude and educate ourselves about age.

Changing Perceptions

Today, we have the opportunity to take steps toward a more positive way of portraying and relating to older adults. We are seeing efforts on the individual, institutional, national and global fronts to impress upon everyone that people of every stage of life are valuable. Intergenerational programs that break down age barriers, empathy-building exercises to help younger people gain greater understanding about aging, and changes to the infrastructure of cities and town to make them more accessible for everyone all make it more likely that future generations will be proud to call themselves seniors (or elders, older adults or Golden Agers). John Beard, WHO Director of Ageing and Life Course, says “Like sexism and racism, changing social norms is possible. It is time to stop defining people by their age. It will result in more prosperous, equitable and healthier societies.”

Categories: Senior Health