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“Hostility, Lack of Value, Negative Stereotypes”: New Data Confirms that Ageism Is Widespread, and Damaging to Senior Health

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The opening line of this recent article on the HealthDay website really grabbed our attention. In the article, reporter Denise Mann writes, “In a cancel culture where there’s zero tolerance for prejudice, at least one form of discrimination appears to be alive and well.”  If you’re a regular reader of the AgingOptions Blog, or a fan of Rajiv’s radio program – or, for that matter, if you’re a baby boomer or older – chances are you can guess what Mann is talking about.

Yes, the “last acceptable prejudice” would seem to be ageism. Whereas these days most of us try to go out of our way to avoid demeaning humor or marginalization of others, older people still seem to be fair game. But the problem of ageism goes far beyond hurt feelings. Recent research has confirmed that ageism truly can be harmful to the health and well-being of those who experience it.

Experience of Ageism is Nearly Universal Among Seniors

As the HealthDay article explains, at its core, ageism is simply prejudice based on a person’s advancing age. As Mann puts it, “It can be as overt as not hiring someone because they are older, or as subtle as giving a loved one a meant-to-be funny ‘you’re over the hill’ birthday card.”

And it’s not at all uncommon. In fact, it’s virtually everywhere, according to a new study published by JAMA Network Open which was released in mid-June Nearly all older adults say they have experienced some form of ageism, many on a daily basis.

Julie Ober Allen, an assistant professor of health promotion at University of Oklahoma and an author of the study, said, “Ageism may be the most common form of discrimination and the most socially condoned form. Awareness of how harmful racism, sexism, homophobia and other ‘-isms’ can be has increased in the last 60 years, but ageism still gets overlooked and ignored.”

Survey Polled More than 2,000 Older Respondents

The JAMA study polled over 2,000 older people between the ages of 50 and 80. They were asked about their everyday lives, and given a score based on their answers about their experiences and their beliefs about aging. The higher the score, the higher the chance that those people will have experienced poor physical or mental health, have chronic health conditions, and show signs of depression.

“Fully 65 percent of respondents said they regularly see, hear or read jokes about older people, and 45 percent said they had more personal experiences, where others assumed they had trouble with technology, vision, hearing or their memory because of their age,” Mann writes.

Not all of the questions were about the external effects of ageism. Some dealt with the respondents’ own internalized feeling about age, like the perceived inevitability of health problems and the experience of loneliness, depression, and anxiety that could potentially come with getting older.

Allen said, “Some older adults may laugh it off like it’s no big deal, but they may internalize it, and these internalized ageism beliefs and stereotypes may be the most harmful. When internalized, ageism can affect mental and physical health. Like other -isms, ageism is a source of stress, and people have a stress response, so we expect the physical reactions will be the same.”

Time to “Flip the Script”

As we all know, stress has real consequences in the body. It increases heart rate and blood pressure, and makes sleeping difficult. It also interferes with the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off illness. Physicians are recognizing that stress is a trigger for inflammation which may be at the core of ageism’s side effects. As the HealthDay article explains, all of these effects of stress and resulting inflammation triggered by the experience of age discrimination can cause real havoc for older adults.

Allen calls for us all to flip the script. “We need to recognize older adults as individuals, not stereotypes, and we should think about aging as another life stage as opposed to one marked by decline and demise.”

As the article reports, the reaction from other experts in the field has been overwhelmingly positive. Dr. Catherine Sarkisian, a geriatrician in Los Angeles, reviewed the study and agreed with the findings. “The amount of ageism that is still tolerated is horrible,” she said. “Despite best efforts, people are going to develop health conditions with advancing age, and we don’t want people to feel like they failed at aging if they do.”

Sarkisian adds that many older people defy aging stereotypes: they lead full, active lives despite their age and health conditions. And, she adds, while the entire cosmetic industry seems fixated on “anti-aging,” that form is ageism is deeply outdated. “We should be able to accept our wrinkles without trying to look like a younger person,” she said.

Selected Quotes from the JAMA Study

Again, the study on ageism can be found here on the JAMA Network Open website. The study looked at the experiences of 2,035 adults, age 50-80. Here are a few key findings from the study:

  • Everyday ageism is defined as “brief verbal, nonverbal, and environmental indignities that convey hostility, a lack of value, or narrow stereotypes of older adults.”
  • JAMA called ageism “a common, socially condoned type of discrimination in the US.”
  • Ageism is “associated with multiple indicators of poor physical and mental health.”
  • From the JAMA article: “These findings suggest that everyday ageism” is “a preventable potential health hazard as people age.”
  • Ageism can trigger “fair or poor physical health, [a] number of chronic health conditions, fair or poor mental health, and depressive symptoms.”
  • “This study found everyday ageism to be prevalent among US adults ages 50 to 80 years. These findings suggest that commonplace ageist messages, interactions, and beliefs may be harmful to health.” The study suggested stronger efforts to “reduce everyday ageism and promote positive beliefs, practices, and policies related to aging and older adults.”

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(originally reported at https://consumer.healthday.com)

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