How “everyday ageism” affects health

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New research suggests ageist jokes and actions that may seem harmless can have a big impact on the physical and mental health of older adults. Getty Images
  • According to a new study, almost all older adults experience some form of ageism on a daily basis in their daily lives.
  • Researchers have found a link between ageism and chronic health problems.
  • Older people who internalize ageist beliefs such as “having health problems are part of growing old” may not seek treatment and set themselves up for a self-fulfilling prophecy, experts say

While jokes about having a “senior moment” or “going over the hill” may seem harmless, they may actually be harmful to seniors’ health, according to new research.

These thoughts fall into the category of “everyday ageism” and help perpetuate negative stereotypes about older people.

A new study published in Open JAMA Network finds that almost all adults experience some form of ageism in their day-to-day lives. These assaults and micro-aggressions range from absorbing ageist messages in the media, to encountering people who believe they are less capable because of their age, and to believing in stereotypes about aging themselves.

“Ageism is a type of discrimination that can present itself in many different ways, both overt and subtle,” said study first author Julie Ober Allen, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Health Sciences. and exercise from the University of Oklahoma, Norman. . “Everyday ageism is rooted in very narrow stereotypes and beliefs about aging that destroy people’s individuality and treat them as a monolithic stereotype of older people.”

Additionally, researchers have found a link between day-to-day experiences of ageism and poor health.

Ober Allen and his colleagues at the University of Michigan surveyed more than 2,000 people between the ages of 50 and 80.

Participants were asked about 10 forms of ageism in everyday life, including reading or hearing jokes about aging or that older people are unattractive or undesirable; meet 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 are just part of aging.

A total of 93% of respondents said they regularly experience at least one form of ageism.

The most common was to believe the statement that “having health problems is part of aging”. Nearly 80% of participants shared this belief, although 82% described their own health as good or very good.

Sixty-five percent of respondents said they had seen, heard or read denigrating or stereotypical jokes about older people, and 45% said they had regularly experienced interpersonal ageism or experiences directly involving another nobody.

These could include other people assuming they had difficulty seeing, hearing, understanding, remembering, or doing things independently. It could also mean that people assumed they weren’t doing anything important or valuable in their lives.

The researchers also looked at how ageism might affect the health of older adults.

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 participants were to report their physical and mental health as “fair” or “poor”, the more chronic conditions they had, and the more likely they were to be depressed.

While the study couldn’t prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship between ageism and poor health, experts say it’s worth exploring the link further.

Dr. Ronan Factora, a geriatrician at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Geriatric Medicine, 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 old,” or “I’m out of breath because I’m getting older,” or “I have memory problems because I’m getting older,” he said. “So people accept that these things that they’re going through are just a normal part of aging, but often that’s not the case.”

When older people internalize these beliefs, ignore their pain and choose not to investigate their ailments, they may miss an opportunity to seek treatment and find relief, he said.

Ober Allen and his colleagues believe that instances of everyday ageism trigger a stress response in the body that may contribute to accelerated aging.

“What we believe is that when you’re exposed to chronic sources of stress, which we’re suggesting, everyday ageism can be an example of a chronic source of stress, it really starts to put a lot of wear and tear on the physiological response to systemic stress, she said.

In other words, the stress of being constantly bombarded with ageist messages from the media, friends, family, and the general public, as well as internalized harmful beliefs about aging, can have physical effects.

“When people experience the stress response so often and on such a regular basis, research suggests it can lead to premature aging and increase the risk of deterioration of multiple biological systems, putting people at risk for a variety of chronic diseases,” said Ober Allen. “So to some degree, 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 in fact be preventable.”

Experts say one of the most important things society can do to combat 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 him when it happens and let others know he is harmful.”

Factora suggests that we view day-to-day ageism as any other type of discrimination.

“In those days, you would never stereotype a person based on their race, ethnicity or religion,” he said. “These are issues that we’ve really worked through over time and age should be part of that.”

On an interpersonal level, both experts advise taking this into account when interacting with the older people in your life.

“Whether it’s your grandparents, your neighbors, or a member of the general public, think twice about how you characterize them,” Factora said. “The words you speak have an impact.”

He also recommends checking up on your loved ones and encouraging them to talk with their doctor about their health issues, especially if they seem to ignore them as a normal part of aging.

“When they don’t seek medical attention for issues such as depression or anxiety, arthritis and associated pain and mobility, memory issues and possibly early dementia, they will eventually have a chronic disease that gets worse, and that will have an effect on their function and independence,” he said. “Ultimately, if this cascade continues, these people will end up being disabled like people expect whatever they are, so it’s kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course, the medical profession isn’t exempt from holding ageist views, so if you’re an elderly person and you think your doctor isn’t taking your complaints seriously, Factora recommends seeking help from a geriatrician.

“They can help you sort through your medical issues and see whether or not there is something else that can be treated from a medical perspective and it’s not just because of aging,” a- he declared.