The Negative Impact of Ageism: It's Not Just About Seniors

Guy checking out his hair with a mirror

People are more sensitive these days about making remarks about people based on gender, ethnicity and other forms of diversity. Yet many who wouldn’t make a racist or sexist remark will happily make a disparaging joke about “geezers,” “codgers,” “old coots” or “fossils.” It could be argued that ageism—biased attitudes and statements about seniors—is one of the last socially acceptable forms of negative stereotyping.

There’s a movement afoot to encourage younger people to examine their ageist attitudes—and it’s important to note that older adults, too, may harbor unnecessarily negative attitudes about seniors. Are these reformers just being overly sensitive? Seniors joke about themselves, right? People make jokes to reduce tension, to invite others to commiserate and to show that life can’t get the best of us. But other jokes are mean-spirited and belittling; if you’re a senior yourself, you probably know which jokes those are!

This new awareness isn’t just a matter of social justice and equality. It’s a matter of health. Over the past decade, studies have shown that seniors who buy into negative stereotypes about older adults are less likely to make good lifestyle choices. This puts them at higher risk of heart disease, disability, hearing loss and dementia. It even shortens life, said University of Georgia College of Public Health experts. And all this results in billions of dollars in health care and long-term care costs.

Younger folks aren’t immune

The problem doesn’t only affect older adults. Numerous studies have shown that young people who have a negative attitude about aging are less likely to be healthy when they themselves reach their later years! That teen who makes fun of “a geezer who can’t even climb the stairs” is more likely to be disabled himself when he is older.

Prof. Becca Levy of the Yale School of Public Health has done a lot of research on this topic. Back in 2009, Levy’s team studied 40 years’ worth of data on a large group of people, and found that individuals who harbored negative stereotypes about the elderly were less likely to experience good health as they grew older. Why would this be? Levy explained, “Positive age stereotypes may promote recovery from disability through several pathways: limiting cardiovascular response to stress, improving physical balance, enhancing self-efficacy, and increasing engagement in healthy behaviors." Speaking in the journal Psychological Science, her team stated: “People are internalizing stereotypes of old age when they are still quite young—with far-reaching consequences. This is the first scientific look at people maturing into the very people they have been unkindly caricaturing. It could be taken as a cautionary tale for those who think they'll never grow old.”

And a 2015 study by Levy also bears noting: She found that the people who had earlier expressed negative beliefs about aging were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Said Levy, “We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalize from society that can result in pathological brain changes."

How can we improve our attitude about aging?

The American Geriatrics Society (AGS) calls for societal change. In 2015, they issued a report pointing out that while improved healthcare and support services have improved the lives of seniors today, allowing them to be productive and independent longer, negative attitudes about aging persist. Many people still believe that aging is typified by “fading away,” “slowing down and breaking down,” rather than being a natural part of life and human development.

Most crucial, says the AGS, many people think of the challenges older adults face as “somebody else’s problem,” or exclusively the responsibility of a person’s family. Said Eric Lindland, a senior researcher with the nonprofit FrameWorks Institute and a lead author of the 2015 report, “Aging is something we all experience. It isn't a barrier or a battle, but it is a characteristic of who we are—and who we are becoming—and it needs to be reflected in public thinking, public policy, and public discourse.” Lindland added, “Not surprisingly, that type of change begins with the public—or more specifically, with our ability to convey a truer vision for what aging in America really means for us all."

Change also happens on the individual level. We can check our own attitude about aging. How do we talk about seniors? About our own aging? About our elderly parents and grandparents? We can seek out positive images about aging. We can spend more time in intergenerational groups that help us realize that even as we deal with physical and cognitive challenges in the future, we won’t lose our desire for a sense of purpose and value.

Perhaps the best way to change our attitudes about aging is to remember the old saying: “We’ll all grow old if we’re lucky.” And to realize that one definition of ageism is “prejudice against our future selves.” We do younger people a great service by helping them see that old age is not to be dreaded, but to be planned and prepared for.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2016.