More evidence of how ageism affects our mental and physical well-being

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, whose groundbreaking work, Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live, 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 2035 nationally representative Americans ages 50 to 80, published on June 15 by Julie Ober Allen in JAMA Open Network. Also, instead of focusing on well-researched contexts like healthcare 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% 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 microagressions 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. I frequently reference a study of Becca Levy’s that shows that more accurate age beliefs protect against Alzheimer’s disease—even among people who are genetically predisposed to the disease. I call often for a national anti-ageism campaign to raise awareness of the health consequences of negative age stereotypes. 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.

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