Ageism Affects Us, Both Physically and Mentally

Ageism affects how our minds and bodies function, and not in a good way. We’ve known that for a while, thanks in large part to the work of Yale’s Becca Levy, PhD, whose groundbreaking work, Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs about Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live (2022) was published this spring.

So it’s exciting to see new data on the health effects of ageism from the National Poll on Healthy Aging, a survey of 2,035 nationally representative Americans, ages 50 to 80, published on June 15 by JAMA Network Open. Instead of focusing on well-researched contexts like health care or the workplace, this study is the first to confirm the near-universal nature of minor but pervasive forms of age discrimination, which the authors refer to as “everyday ageism.” A full 93 percent of respondents encountered some form of it in their daily lives, such as commercials for anti-aging products, “senior moment” quips or what the researchers describe as “brief verbal, nonverbal, and environmental indignities that convey hostility, a lack of value, or narrow stereotypes of older adults.”

There’s a word for these derogatory behaviors: microaggressions—indirect, often unintentional expressions of prejudice. There’s nothing “micro” about their effect on our well-being. Exposure to microaggressions is associated with depression, anxiety, lower job satisfaction and poor self-esteem in targeted groups, and older people are no exception. Study participants were asked to assess their health in four ways: overall physical health, overall mental health, number of chronic conditions and whether they were depressed. The investigators found those with higher “everyday ageism” scores—who reported more exposure to demeaning messages about aging—faced higher health risks on all four measures. Exposure was more common among people from socially and economically disadvantaged groups. 

I’ve written at length about how ageism harms our health and called for a national anti-ageism campaign to raise awareness of age-based stereotypes and the damage they do. First author of this new study Julie Ober Allen, of the University of Oklahoma, Norman, concurs. Her findings, she writes, suggest that “anti-ageism efforts could be a strategy for promoting older adult health and well-being.” 

So does the World Health Organization, which launched its superb Global Campaign to Combat Ageism in 2021 with the goal of increasing healthspan along with lifespan. We’ve got that terrific model and we’ve got a growing body of solid, scientific evidence. Let’s make it happen.