According to a new study, almost all older people have experienced some form of ageism in their daily lives – whether it’s seeing ageist messages and images on TV or on the internet, meeting people who suggest that they are less capable simply because they are older, or believing stereotypes about aging.
However, older adults with more health problems appear to have been most likely to have experienced this type of “everyday ageism”, according to new findings published by a team from the University of Oklahoma, Norman and the University of Michigan. The data, from a survey of more than 2,000 people between the ages of 50 and 80, comes from the National Poll on Healthy Aging.
The higher a person’s score on a daily experiences of ageism scale, the more likely they are to be in poor physical or mental health, to have more chronic health conditions, or to show signs of depression. .
Although the study, published in Open JAMA Networkcannot show cause and effect, the authors note that the links between ageism and health need to be further explored and considered when designing programs to encourage good health and well-being in people elderly.
These findings raise the question of whether aging-related health problems reflect the detrimental influences of ageism and present the possibility that anti-ageism efforts may be a strategy to promote the health and well-being of older adults.
Julie Ober Allen, Ph.D., MPH, First Author, Department of Health and Exercise Sciences, University of Oklahoma, Norman
Allen worked on the survey during his postdoctoral stay at the Center for Population Studies at UM’s Institute for Social Research.
The team previously published preliminary findings in a report by NPHA, based at the UM Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation and supported by AARP and Michigan Medicine, UM’s academic medical center.
But the new analysis goes further and uses the everyday ageism scale developed by the team. This scale, validated and released last year, calculates a score based on an individual’s responses to 10 questions about their own experiences and beliefs about aging.
In total, 93% of older people surveyed said they regularly experience at least one of the 10 forms of ageism. The most common, experienced by nearly 80%, agreed with the statement that ‘having health problems is part of growing old’ – even though 83% of respondents described their own health as good or very good . This type of “internalized” ageism also included agreeing with statements that feeling lonely or feeling depressed, sad, or worried is part of aging.
Meanwhile, 65% of seniors said they regularly see, hear or read jokes about seniors or messages that seniors are unattractive or undesirable.
Another class of ageist experiences – which the researchers call interpersonal ageism – was reported as a regular occurrence by 45% of respondents. These included experiences involving another person, where the older person felt they had difficulty using technology, seeing, hearing, understanding, remembering or doing something on its own – or that it wasn’t doing anything worthwhile.
The researchers calculated day-to-day ageism scores for each of the more than 2,000 survey respondents, based on their answers to all of the survey questions.
The overall average score was just over 10. As a group, people aged 65 to 80 scored over 11, indicating that people aged 50 to 64 are more affected by ageism .
People who had lower levels of income or education and those who lived in rural areas also had higher average ageism scores than others. Older adults who said they spent four or more hours each day watching television, browsing the Internet or reading magazines had higher scores than those with less exposure to these media.
The researchers then looked at each person’s individual score in light of what they said about their own health, including self-rated physical and mental health, number of chronic health conditions and reporting of symptoms of depression.
They found a strong link between the highest scores and the four health-related measures. That is, those who reported higher day-to-day ageism scores were more likely to report overall physical health or overall mental health as fair or poor, more chronic health conditions, and symptoms of depression.
Much of this link was related to measures of internalized ageism – the questions that measured how much a person agreed with statements about health problems, loneliness and sadness being part of aging. But experiences with interpersonal forms of ageism were also linked to health-related measures, as were some aspects of ageist messages.
The relationship between experiences of ageism in everyday life and the health of older adults was of particular interest to survey director and lead author Preeti Malani, MD, a professor at Michigan Medicine with a background in elder care.
“The fact that our survey respondents who said they felt the most forms of ageism were also more likely to say their physical or mental health was fair or poor, or that they had a chronic condition like diabetes or heart disease, is something that needs more testing,” she says.
Michigan Medicine – University of Michigan
Allen, OJ, et al. (2022) Experiences of everyday ageism and the health of older Americans. JAMA network open. doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.17240.