While jokes about having a “senior moment” or “getting over the hill” might seem harmless, they actually may be causing damage to older adults’ health, new research suggests.
These musings fall under the category of “everyday ageism” and help perpetuate negative stereotypes about older adults.
A new study published in JAMA Network OpenTrusted Source finds nearly all adults experience some form of ageism in their day-to-day lives. These aggressions and micro-aggressions range from absorbing ageist messaging in the media, encountering people who believe they’re less capable because of their age, and believing stereotypes themselves about getting older.
“Ageism is a type of discrimination that can present in all different ways, both overt and subtle,” said the study’s first author Julie Ober Allen, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at the University of Oklahoma, Norman. “Everyday ageism is rooted in stereotypes and very narrow beliefs about aging that rip people’s individuality away and treat them like a monolithic stereotype of older adults.”
What’s more, the researchers found a connection between experiences of everyday ageism and poorer health.
Ober Allen and colleagues from the University of Michigan surveyed more than 2,000 people between the ages of 50 and 80.
Participants were asked about 10 forms of everyday ageism, including reading or hearing jokes about aging or that older adults are unattractive or undesirable; encountering people who assume they have difficulty using technology or remembering or understanding things because of their age; and believing that having health problems, feeling lonely, and feeling depressed is just a part of getting older.
In all, 93 percent of those surveyed reported that they regularly experienced at least one form of ageism.
The most common one was believing the statement that “having health problems is a part of getting older.” Nearly 80 percent of participants held this belief, even though 82 percent described their own health as good or very good.
Sixty-five percent of those surveyed said they see, hear, or read jokes disparaging or stereotyping older people, and 45 percent said they regularly experienced interpersonal ageism, or experiences directly involving another person.
These could include others assuming they were having trouble with seeing, hearing, understanding, remembering, or doing things independently. It could also mean people assumed they weren’t doing anything important or anything valuable with their life.
The researchers also looked at how ageism might affect older adults’ health.
To do this, they calculated an “everyday ageism score” for each participant and compared it to what they reported about their own physical and mental health.
The results showed that the higher the ageism score, the more likely the participants were to report that their physical and mental health was “fair” or “poor,” the more chronic conditions they had, and the more likely they were to be depressed.
While the study cannot prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship between ageism and poor health, experts say it’s worth further exploring the connection.
Dr. Ronan Factora, a geriatrician at the Center for Geriatric Medicine at Cleveland Clinic, says internalized ageism is an issue he has to help his patients overcome every day.
“I often hear patients say ‘I’m getting weaker. It’s just because I’m getting older,’ or ‘I’m short of breath because I’m getting older,’ or ‘I’m having memory problems because I’m getting older,’” he said. “So people accept that these things that they’re experiencing are just a normal part of aging, but often that’s not the case.”
When older adults internalize these beliefs, shrug off their pain, and choose not to investigate their ailments, they may be missing an opportunity to get treatment and find relief, he said.
Ober Allen and her colleagues believe experiencing instances of everyday ageism triggers a stress response in the body that may contribute to accelerated aging.
“What we believe is that when you are exposed to chronic sources of stress, for which we propose, everyday ageism may be an example of a chronic source of stress, it starts to really put a lot of wear and tear on the physiologic stress response system,” she said.
In other words, the stress from being constantly bombarded with ageist messaging from the media, friends, and family, and the general public, as well as internalized harmful beliefs about aging, may have physical effects.
“When people experience the stress response so often and so regularly, research suggests it can lead to premature aging and increase risk for the deterioration of multiple biological systems, putting people at risk for a variety of different chronic diseases,” Ober Allen said. “So to a certain extent, perhaps some of the health-related changes that we associate with aging, if they are, in fact, related to ageism and not chronological aging, may actually be preventable.”
Experts say one of the most important things society can do to address the harmful effects of ageism is to create awareness.
“It’s so commonplace that most people don’t even notice it,” Ober Allen said. “We need to call it out when it happens and let others know it is harmful.”
Factora suggests we view everyday ageism as any other type of discrimination.
“In this era, you would never stereotype a person based on their race, ethnicity, or religion,” he said. “These are issues that we’ve really drummed out over time and age should be a part of that.”
At the interpersonal level, both experts advise being mindful of this when you interact with the older individuals in your life.
“Whether it’s your grandparents, neighbors, or a member of the general public, think twice about how you characterize them,” Factora said. “The words you say have an impact.”
He also recommends checking in on your loved ones and encouraging them to talk with their doctors about their health problems, particularly if they appear to be shrugging them off as a normal part of aging.
“When they’re not seeking medical care for issues like depression or anxiety, arthritis and related pain and mobility, memory problems, and maybe early dementia, they’ll end up having worsening chronic illness, and it’ll have an effect on their function and independence,” he said. “Ultimately, if this cascade continues, those persons will end up being disabled the way that people expect them to be. So it’s sort of like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Of course, the medical profession isn’t exempt from having ageist views, so if you’re an older adult and feel your doctor isn’t taking your complaints seriously, Factora recommends seeking help from a geriatrician.
“They can help sort through your medical problems and see whether or not there’s something else there that can be addressed from a medical perspective and it’s not just because of getting older,” he said.