Experiences of ageism are linked to poor physical – mental health – more chronic health conditions and signs of depression


Growing older involves gaining maturity and becoming a more responsible and respectful adult.

The process of aging can be viewed unfavorably by some people, who view it pessimistically, and this reduces the pleasure they may have gained from their own growth (Kang, 2020).

Aging is often considered to be a challenging process, during which individuals lose their confidence and experience a loss of productivity (Schafer & Shippee, 2009). Significant declines in social and cultural status have been observed in older adults over the past century as a result of industrialization and modernization (Aboderin, 2004; Nelson, 2005).

The industrial age and technological advancements have increased the need for people to work efficiently and quickly to remain competitive (Tuomi et al., 1997). These changes have had the effect of decreasing the need for and visibility of older adults’ activities (Solem, 2005).

A growing body of research has observed an increase in negative attitudes toward older individuals over the years (Nelson, 2005; Scharlach et al., 2000). Several studies have shown that members of the younger generations now exhibit more negative views and attitudes toward older adults than was previously the case (North & Fiske, 2012).

Negative beliefs and attitudes towards older adults are increasingly prevalent, which may add to the barriers that older adults face when seeking employment (Skirbekk, 2004). Consequently, older adults are often considered to be merely passive recipients of welfare, and they may even be accused of being a burden to younger generations (Hudson, 2012).

The belief that older adults are less valuable or of no interest to society may contribute to ageism.

Ageism is stereotyping, prejudice, and discriminatory actions or attitudes based on chronological age (Iversen et al., 2009). Ageism, therefore, can be operationalized as stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination, and each of those components, individually, can be seen as cognitive, affective, and behavioral (Iversen et al., 2009). Consequently, age stereotypes are fixed beliefs that overgeneralize the characteristics, attributes, and behaviors held in common by a particular group (Whitley & Kite, 2006).

Age stereotypes can contribute to assumptions about a person’s physical and mental capabilities, social skills, political and religious beliefs, and other traits based on their age (World Health Organization, 2021). A prejudice is a negative or positive emotional reaction to a person based on their perceived affiliation with a particular group (World Health Organization, 2021).

Age prejudice is one of the most socially vocalized and institutionalized prejudices in many segments of society, and it is disregarded in numerous aspects of social life (Nelson, 2005). A discriminatory act is characterized primarily by distorted behavior that treats individuals in a non-constructive manner (Dovidio et al., 2011). Age discrimination is behavior directed at people based on their age, including actions, practices, and policies (World Health Organization, 2021).

Ageism is a very serious issue. While it can theoretically be directed toward any age group, the vast majority of studies focus on older adults or late adolescents (Nelson, 2005). Although ageism can be shown in terms of positive stereotypes or attitudes, it is most closely associated with negative stereotypes or attitudes (Palmore, 1999).

Ageism can manifest in two main ways: implicitly, through unconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, or explicitly, through intentional actions or verbal expressions triggered by conscious awareness (Iversen et al., 2009). Furthermore, ageism is not restricted to directed toward others but can also be self-directed (Ayalon & Tesch-römer, 2017).

Exposure to ageism over time can result in the internalization of ageist attitudes and stereotypes, as described by Levy (2009) in stereotype embodiment theory. Many older adults tend to internalize the negative stereotypes of ageism that continue to be perpetuated throughout society today and tend to confine themselves to age-related stereotypes, becoming weak, unhealthy, and even less able to accept new learning opportunities (Streb et al., 2008).

Internalized age stereotypes may lead to low levels of self-esteem and self-confidence (Orth et al., 2010), and it may affect older adults’ health negatively (Emile et al., 2014), especially with regard to their mental health and well-being (Bryant et al., 2012).

An individual who believes that they are too old may be more susceptible to the negative consequences of ageism, which may include decreased self-efficacy and increased negative emotions (Eibach et al., 2010).

The converse may also be true, as positive perceptions and attitudes on aging may have beneficial effects on psychological well-being (Bryant et al., 2012). Older adults who have experienced discrimination based upon their chronological age may be more exposed to stressors (Snape & Redman, 2003) and depression (Tougas et al., 2004), which are detrimental to their mental health (Pascoe & Richman, 2009).

Ageism is increasingly recognized as a risk factor associated with increased stress, anxiety, depression, and lowered life satisfaction (Ayalon et al., 2019). However, articles on ageism generally take the form of conceptual or theoretical papers, and they tend to center on identifying the causes and consequences of ageism (Iversen et al., 2009). More empirical studies are needed to investigate the harm that ageism can cause to the psychological well-being of older adults. Our review examined this relationship by synthesizing the results of several studies identified in a thorough systematic search.

New research shows that: . . . .

Older adults with more health concerns, though, appear most likely to have experienced this kind of “everyday ageism”, according to new findings published by a team from the University of Oklahoma, Norman and the University of Michigan. The data, from a survey of more than 2,000 people between ages of 50 and 80, come from the National Poll on Healthy Aging.

The higher a person’s score on a scale of everyday ageism experiences, the more likely they were to be in poor physical or mental health, to have more chronic health conditions, or to show signs of depression.

Though the study, published in JAMA Network Open, can’t show cause and effect, the authors note that the linkages between ageism and health need to be explored further and taken into account when designing programs to encourage good health and well-being among older adults.

“These findings raise the question of whether aging-related health problems reflect the adverse influences of ageism and present the possibility that anti-ageism efforts could be a strategy for promoting older adult health and well-being,” says first author Julie Ober Allen, Ph.D., M.P.H., Department of Health and Exercise Science, University of Oklahoma, Norman.

Allen worked on the survey during her time as a postdoctoral fellow at the Population Studies Center at U-M’s Institute for Social Research.

The team previously published preliminary findings in a report from the NPHA, which is based at the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation and supported by AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center.

But the new analysis goes further, and uses the Everyday Ageism Scale developed by the team. That scale, validated and published last year, calculates a score based on an individual’s answers to 10 questions about their own experiences and beliefs regarding aging.

In all, 93% of the older adults surveyed said they regularly experienced at least one of the 10 forms of ageism. The most common one, experienced by nearly 80%, was agreeing with the statement that “having health problems is part of getting older” – even though 83% of the people surveyed described their own health as good or very good. This kind of “internalized” ageism also included agreeing with the statements that feeling lonely, or feeling depressed, sad or worried, are part of getting older.

Meanwhile, 65% of the older adults said they regularly see, hear or read jokes about older people, or messages that older adults are unattractive or undesirable.

Another class of ageist experiences – which the researchers call interpersonal ageism – was reported as a regular occurrence by 45% of the respondents. These included experiences involving another person, where the older person felt it was assumed that they were having trouble with using technology, seeing, hearing, understanding, remembering, or doing something independently – or that they don’t do anything valuable.  

The researchers calculated Everyday Ageism scores for every one of the more than 2,000 poll respondents, based on their responses to all the poll questions.

The overall average score was just over 10. As a group, people who were ages 65 to 80 scored over 11, indicating more ageism experiences those among those ages 50-64.

People who had lower levels of income or education, and those who lived in rural areas, also had average ageism scores that were higher than others. Older adults who reported spending four hours or more every day watching television, browsing the internet or reading magazines had higher scores than those with less exposure to such media.

The researchers then looked at each person’s individual score in light of what they had said about their own health, including self-rated physical and mental health, number of chronic health conditions and report of depression symptoms.

They found a close link between higher scores and all four health-related measures. That is, those who reported higher Everyday Ageism scores were more likely to have reported that their overall physical health or overall mental health were fair or poor, more chronic health conditions, and depression symptoms.

A lot of this linkage had to do with internalized ageism measures – the questions that measured how strongly a person agreed with the statements about health problems, loneliness and sadness being part of getting older. But experiences with the interpersonal forms of ageism were also linked to health-related measues, as were some aspects of ageist messages.

The relationship between ageism experiences in older adults’ day-to-day lives and health especially interested poll director and senior author Preeti Malani, M.D., a professor at Michigan Medicine with a background in caring for older adults.

“The fact that our poll respondents who said they’d felt the most forms of ageism were also more likely to say their physical or mental health was fair or poor, or to have a chronic condition such as diabetes or heart disease, is something that needs more examination,” she says.

reference link : https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9008869/

Learn more about the  National Poll on Healthy Aging at www.healthyagingpoll.org, and sign up to receive new reports as they are published.

The data on which the new study is based are available at https://www.openicpsr.org/openicpsr/project/171621/version/V1/view

Additional authors: Erica Solway, PhD, MSW, MPH; Matthias Kirch, MS; Dianne Singer, MPH; Jeffrey T. Kullgren, MD, MS, MPH; Valerie Moïse, MS

Funding: The study was funded in part by a grant to the U-M Population Studies Center, where Allen was a postdoctoral fellow, from the National Institute on Aging (AG000221). The University of Oklahoma Libraries Open Access Fund also provided support.


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