The Little-Known, Detrimental Effects of Ageism

Words that end with the letters ism always get my attention and make me angry. Why? Because ism indicates “an oppressive and especially discriminatory attitude or belief.” Its official definition in Merriam Webster is “prejudice or discrimination based on a (specified) attribute.” Think racism or sexism. Or since I am writing about older people, think ageism. As the population ages, that word increasingly finds its way into conversations, social media, and print.

One would think that, since there are more than 50 million senior citizens in the United States—16.5 percent of the total population—we might have achieved some modicum of respect by now due to our sheer numbers if nothing else. But, alas, ageism is not only ubiquitous, but it is also damaging to our economic security, physical and mental health, cognitive abilities, and life span.

This is not just an American problem; it reaches across oceans and national borders, and it is serious enough to merit an international Ageism Awareness Day to focus on what ageism is and highlight its impact. This year, it was on October 10th.

According to Becca Levy, PhD, author of Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live, Many health problems formerly considered to be entirely due to the aging process, such as memory loss, hearing decline, and cardiovascular events, are instead influenced by the negative age beliefs that dominate in the US and many other countries.”

In terms of how ageism affects mental health, The Center for Mental Health and Aging reports researchers found that, when older Veterans fully accepted ageist stereotypes, they were significantly more likely to experience anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal thoughts. In a 2017 study on how older adults with suicidal thoughts were treated in an Emergency Room, researchers found that they were significantly less likely than younger adults to receive a mental-health evaluation or be given a referral for follow-up mental healthcare.

Ageism takes many forms, making it sometimes difficult to spot. For example, structural ageism includes denial of access to health care, exclusion from clinical trials, and limited work opportunities for older adults. Hostile ageism, the most overt form, shows up in physical, financial, and verbal abuse. Neglectful ageism overlooks the contributions of older adults and makes them invisible. Benevolent ageism is compassionate but paternalistic, grouping older adults together as one uniformly frail and vulnerable population requiring protection.

All of the above is an abbreviated description of a very big problem. The question is what can be done about abolishing this pernicious form of prejudice aimed at a growing segment of the US population?

The Center for Mental Health offers these suggestions:

  • Be self-aware. Develop awareness of your own ageist attitudes, language, and behavior. Try to understand what the source or cause of your ageist thoughts and beliefs might be.
  • Remember that older adults are diverse and have intersecting identities. As such, ageism interacts with other stigmatized identities such as sex, race, gender, ability, and sexual orientation, which creates higher levels of risk, disenfranchisement, and reduced levels of access to resources and care.
  • Speak out against ageism by providing feedback when you see it showing up. Ageism is so ingrained in our culture that many people are not aware of ways their language and behaviors negatively portray older adults. Don’t be afraid to point it out.
  • Shift your focus. Try to see things through a new lens. Shift your focus from a stereotypical view of older adults to a “counter-stereotype,” where you picture older adults as the opposite of their conventional image.
  • Shift the way you interact with older adults. Look for opportunities to associate with those who are in a healthier and more active season of their lives.
  • Spread the facts. Make sure health workers, policymakers, and healthcare administrators are aware of diversity among older adults. Those experiencing intersecting identities may be at particular risk for the negative consequences of ageism.

Of course, you can’t solve this problem alone, any more than you can put a stop to climate change by yourself, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t act when you can. Remember: “Small changes and small steps can create massive impact.” —Melissa McCreery