The Dangers of Ageism

Old people in geriatric hospice: Black doctor visiting an aged patient, measuring blood pressure of a senior woman. Group of retired men in foreground playing chess.


Ageism – bias against an individual because of his or her age – is rampant in America. In one study, 70 percent of older adults said they had been insulted or mistreated because of their age. This can take the form of a server asking a senior’s younger companion what the senior would like rather than addressing the senior herself or by the numerous portrayals in popular media of elders as crabby, incompetent, and superfluous.


Elderspeak – an overly sweet, controlling and infantilizing communication style similar to baby talk – is another form of ageism which many use unconsciously. Gerontologists and elder care experts are making their staff aware that elderspeak can be demeaning and hurtful for older adults. As part of today’s ongoing culture change in senior care, healthcare workers are being trained to avoid patronizing terms like “dear,” “sweetie” and “young lady.” They are reminded not to automatically address the person by their first name, but instead to ask their preference. In short, experts say, address older adults, no matter what their health condition, as adults. Speak in a normal voice rather than in a high-pitched tone. Wait for the person to respond, even if it takes a little longer. Remember the golden rule of communication: talk to the person as you would want to be addressed—as a capable, valuable person in control of your own life.

The Economic Impact

But ageism hurts more than just an older person’s feelings. Age discrimination in the workforce is sending many seniors into poverty. Older workers who lose a job spend a longer time unemployed than their younger counterparts and if they do find another job, it usually pays less that the one they left. And while the “official” unemployment rate for those 55 and older hovers around 3.5 percent, an analysis by Time Magazine revealed that when you factor in those working part-time who would rather be working full-time and those who have given up looking for work altogether, the unemployment rates reaches a whopping 12 percent. According to the National Council on Aging, more than 25 million Americans aged 60 or older are economically insecure.

The Health Impact

The negative impact of ageism has been well-documented. Stress, depression and a higher risk of heart disease result when seniors internalize negative messages from the media and from people around them. Ageism can cause a damaging cycle: marginalization leads to low self-esteem and depression, which in turn accelerates withdrawal and physical decline. A study from Yale showed that negative beliefs about aging may be linked to brain changes related to Alzheimer’s disease – specifically, people who had more negative thoughts about aging had a significantly greater number of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, two conditions associated with Alzheimer’s. Another Yale study showed that positive attitudes about aging could extend one’s life by 7-1/2 years – a greater lifespan gain than from low cholesterol, low blood pressure, maintaining a healthy weight, or even being a nonsmoker!

Ageism Is Harmful Even for the Young

If the health and emotional well-being of the seniors in our life isn’t motivation enough to check our attitudes, consider this – research by Yale School of Public Health shows that younger people also are damaged by these negative beliefs. The study found a striking link between ageism in early life and poor health later on. When younger people talk about seniors as “a burden,” make ugly jokes about the physical changes of aging, or hold unflattering stereotypes of the worth of older people, they reduce their own chances of healthy aging. Some experts believe this is because those who do not look forward to their later years are less likely to be mindful of their health. It’s never too late – or too early – to update our attitude and educate ourselves about age.

Today we have the opportunity to take steps toward a more positive way of portraying and relating to older adults. We are seeing efforts on the individual, institutional, national and global fronts to impress upon everyone that people of every stage of life are valuable. Intergenerational programs that break down age barriers, empathy-building exercises to help younger people gain greater understanding about aging, and changes to our cities and towns to make them more accessible for everyone all make it more likely that future generations will be proud to call themselves seniors (or elders, older adults or Golden Agers).

Categories: Senior Health