March 12, 2019

Ageism: It’s Bad for Your Health

by Bev Mallett | Chair, Wellness Committee

“Deport seniors instead of immigrants, they’re easier to catch” was the heading of a recent letter to our local newspaper. The writer was trying to make the point that asylum seekers should be welcomed to Canada, but seniors should be deported to countries “like Syria, Somalia, and Sri Lanka” to lower the cost of social security and medical care, “saving society hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.”

Although the writer of the letter might have been writing tongue-in-cheek, one can imagine the outrage that would result if, instead of the word ‘seniors,’ other descriptive words, such as those identifying a person’s race, gender, or religious affiliation were used. Most people recognize that prejudice based on race, gender, and religion is wrong and harmful to society. But ageism has not received the same attention in the media as other forms of prejudice.

The term ageism was coined in 1968 by psychiatrist Robert Butler, and, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is stereotyping and discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of age. It can take many forms, including prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory practices, and institutional policies that perpetuate stereotypical beliefs. A study by Dr. Margaret Penning of the University of Victoria found that age discrimination was found to be more commonly reported than either gender or racial discrimination.

Ageism is prevalent and acceptable in society and stems from the assumption that all members of a group (in the case of this article, older adults) are the same. This attitude has serious implications for seniors and for society at large. In the year 2050, research has indicated that thirty per cent or more of the population in ‘developed’ countries will be aged sixty or older.

Ageism has harmful effects on the health of older adults. Dr. Zheng Wu of Simon Fraser University has shown that stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination toward seniors is detrimental to mental health and has been linked to higher mortality rates. His research shows that many seniors are not given credit by the medical profession for understanding their own health needs and are often ignored or, in some cases, heavily over-medicated. According to WHO, ageism has been shown to cause cardiovascular stress, lowered levels of self-efficacy, and decreased productivity.

Ageism is not only harmful to the recipient of prejudice; it also has negative effects on the health of those who hold prejudiced beliefs. As described in the July/August 2018 edition of Zoomer, Dr. Becca Levy of Yale University, in a famous study from the 1970s, surveyed regarding their attitudes about aging residents of a town in Ohio. In the 1990s, she studied the mortality rates of those she had previously interviewed and made a surprising discovery. The subjects with the most negative views of aging died, on average, 7.6 years sooner than those with the most positive views.

Ageism is different from other ‘isms,’ such as racism or sexism, in that these prejudices refer to those who are different from us. But, unless we do not survive to old age, we all end up as seniors. So, among younger generations, senior ageism is discrimination against their future selves!

Researcher Craig Flower and his colleagues of Massey University believe the key to successful aging is to resist ageism and the ageist messages we are exposed to almost constantly in Western society. Suggested strategies include:

  • Feel optimistic about aging. Attitude has a lot to do with how people overcome ageism. Relish the experience and wisdom that come with age.
  • Don’t fall into the ‘senior moment’ trap. Attributing a memory lapse to something ominous going on in our brains will lead us, and others, to see ourselves as less than mentally capable.
  • Resist the temptation to tease others about their age. The jokes about ‘being over the hill’ can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
  • Plan for future care needs. Addressing changes that may happen as we age is both realistic and proactive.
  • Learn new technologies that will stimulate your brain and keep you in touch with the changing world.
  • Manage being the recipient of ageism. It is almost inevitable that we will be the target of some form of ageism as we get older. When that happens, let people know that ageism jokes are as offensive as jokes about race or gender.
  • Resist giving in to the peddlers of anti-aging products. We all want to remain healthy, but the constant barrage of negative advertising related to aging is dangerous to our health!