“Ageism, and an older person’s perception of aging, may hold the keys to a longer life.” That’s the first sentence of Why age bias has real world health effects, just published by the Association of Health Care Journalists, which supports excellence in their field.
The catalyst was a new study published in The Gerontologist. The two-year study monitored 5,483 New Jersey residents ages 50-74 and assessed their risk of dying over a 9-year period. The researchers used a metric called “subjective successful aging”: subjective criteria used by older people to assess how well they are aging. (The lower the score, the less satisfying the person’s experience of aging.) Researchers found a significant association: “People with low scores (0-5), had a 45% chance of dying within nine years, while those with high scores (25-30) had less than a 10% chance of dying.” In other words, the olders who were least satisfied with their aging experience were more than four times more likely to die over the next nine years than those who felt the most satisfied.
These findings add to the growing body of evidence that ageist attitudes harm our health and actually shorten lives. Much of the research has been conducted by Yale’s Becca Levy, author of Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live. It was her oft-cited finding, published over two decades ago, that people with positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those who equated aging with loss and decline.
It’s not just about living longer. It’s about enjoying better physical and mental health. People with more positive attitudes towards aging—fact- rather than fear-based, that is—are less likely to develop dementia, even if they carry the gene that predisposes them to the disease. (Levy again.) A study led by Julie Ober Allen, published in JAMA Open Network last summer, studied levels of exposure to “everyday ageism” (minor but pervasive forms of age discrimination, or microaggressions). 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 who reported more exposure to demeaning messages about aging faced higher health risks on all four measures. Also out last summer, another study led by Levy and published in Social Science & Medicine examined “whether negative age stereotypes contribute to the chronic pain of older persons.” Yes, they do.
Encountering bias is stressful, and stress contributes to many health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes. Age stereotypes become more relevant as we get older—and thus more likely to become self-fulfilling prophecies. People with negative self-perceptions around aging are less likely to engage in healthy practices like having regular checkups, controlling weight and diet, and exercising. The reverse is also the case.
Want to stay healthy as you age? Check your age bias.
Want everyone else to age as well as possible? Join the emerging movement to end ageism. It’s gaining ground around the world.