Ageism is bad for your health

Try looking up ‘healthy ageing’, ‘ageing well’, ‘active ageing’, and ‘positive ageing’ in your search engine. You will find a treasure trove of literature, articles, programs and commentaries. You will find tips and suggestions about eating well, staying active, keeping connected, finding purpose and meaning, trying new things, staying positive. All of these are welcome and sound suggestions. All of them are focused on individual choices and actions.

What about the context within which we age? We get older within a social context. How I age is of course, about me, my actions and my attitudes but it is also about others, their actions and attitudes towards me. Further, how I age goes beyond the personal and interpersonal to the structural – the access and opportunities I have, and have had, to education, secure housing, healthcare, work and financial security over my lifetime.

Read more: Other ‘-isms’ are banned, why do we tolerate ageism?

What if my personal, interpersonal and structural context is ageist? What if it devalues me and this time of my life as I get older? What impact does that have on me and my health as I age?

Ageism is prejudice expressed towards a person because of their age. It includes stereotyping, discrimination and mistreatment, and comes from negative attitudes and beliefs about what it means to get older.

Ageism can also be internalised, where we accept these stereotypes and prejudices as an inevitable part of ageing. Ageism can affect how I feel, think and what I expect as I get older. Ageism can also have a profound impact on how I am seen, treated and valued in the context in which I live.

And that’s exactly what the evidence shows. Ageism has harmful physiological and psychological effects on our health. These can be compounded over time and can lead to long term negative health outcomes.

Experiencing ageism has also been found to be related to health behaviours that are associated with particular disease outcomes, such as smoking or alcohol abuse. It may also be related to not participating in health-promoting behaviours, such as cancer screening or diabetes management.

The impact of ageism as a form of discrimination has been less studied than other forms of discrimination such as racism, sexism and homophobia – until now.

The Yale School of Public Health study (Levy et al, 20) is the first systematic review of ageism that simultaneously considered structural-level ageism (such as denied access to healthcare), and individual-level ageism (such as the power of stress-inducing negative age stereotypes assimilated from culture to affect the health of older people).

The Yale team found evidence that ageism led to worse outcomes in a number of mental health conditions, including depression, and a number of physical health conditions, including shorter life expectancy. Ten studies showed that when older people assimilate negative age stereotypes from the culture, they have a shorter life expectancy. This holds true in multiple countries studies, including Australia, Germany, and China. This systematic review also found ageism affected older persons regardless of their age, sex, and racial/ethnic membership.

This is the first study to also identify the economic cost that ageism imposes on health – and it’s huge! The findings suggest that a reduction of ageism would not only have a monetary benefit for society, but also have health benefits for older people.

Read more: Can you imagine a world without ageism?

The results of this study make a strong case for action:

“A comprehensive approach would involve addressing the societal sources of injurious images about and behaviours toward the old. An intervention of this type would require a large-scale campaign. Given the magnitude of the healthcare costs resulting from ageism, even if such an intervention had a limited impact on ageism, its potential could be substantial – not only financially, but also by enhancing the lives of older persons.”

EveryAGE Counts, Australia’s coalition-based campaign to end ageism, has long called for such a long-term government funded public awareness campaign.

If we are serious about ageing well, we must address the context within which we age and dismantle the ageism and age discrimination that has such devastating negative effects on our health. As one of EveryAGE Counts’ founding members, the late Hal Kendig wrote: “Public attitudes are among the most powerful social influences on ageing well.”[6]

As the UN rolls out its Decade of Heathy Ageing, EveryAGE Counts awaits the first Global Report on Ageism. This landmark report, to be launched online today (18 March 2021), will provide a significant evidence base and call to action for countries around the world to mobilise to end ageism.

Read more: Stopping ageism

So, please, eat well, stay connected, exercise and find purpose. But also, create the conditions so that we can all age well – fight ageism, assert your rights and proclaim your value to your community and society.

How has ageism affected your health? Has it also cost you money?

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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Dr Marlene Krasovitsky

Dr Marlene Krasovitsky is currently the Campaign Director, Older Australians with The Benevolent Society (TBS).



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