How Ageism is Damaging People’s Health

Posted on: January 23rd, 2020 by Pat Mesiti No Comments

Anyone over 45 knows that society is ageist, and as you get older you experience more ageism. As you get closer to 70 it gets harder to be served in bars, harder to get shop assistants to notice you and harder to get waiters to pay attention to your order. But a new study has now found that ageism isn’t just annoying and demoralising, it is also damaging people’s health. The US university, Yale, has just released its findings from the largest ever examination of the health consequences of ageism, or age-based bias. Researchers at the Yale School of Public Health have found evidence that ageism is damaging the health of people in 45 countries across five continents. The study draws on the experiences of seven million people.

According to the World Health Organisation, ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age. Ageism is widespread and insidious. Ageism is everywhere, yet it is the most socially acceptable of any prejudice. It is not okay to be racist or sexist, but it seems to be okay to treat anyone ‘not young’ as a lesser person. You can treat them as though they are stupid, confused or dottery just because they have a couple of grey hairs. This attitude leads to the marginalisation of people within communities and has negative impacts on their health and well-being. Overlooked for jobs, socially excluded and stereotyped in the media, ageism is cruel and harmful, and as a community we need to look at how we treat people, who are no longer in the prime of life.

World Health Organisation requested ageing study

Yale Professor Becca Levy led this new study following a request from the World Health Organisation. It is part of an international program called Global Campaign to Combat Ageism, and is supported by 194 countries. The study appears in the current PLOS ONE journal, if you want to read it.

The study used information or data drawn from 422 previous studies from around the world on ageism. The vast majority of studies found that ageism hurts people’s health. The study looked at a wide variety of ways that ageism damages people. People can suffer stress when belittled or ignored, and they can also feel shut out of social groups, but even more serious is evidence that some health professionals aren’t providing quality care to people because they are dismissed as old and at the tail-end of their lives.

Ageism causes multiple problems

“The injurious reach of ageism that our team documented demonstrates the need for initiatives to overcome ageism,” Prof Levy said in a statement.

The Yale team also found evidence that ageism led to worse outcomes in a number of mental health conditions, including depression. And the study found that people constantly exposed to ageism actually had shorter lives than peers who were lucky enough not to face constant discrimination. This ‘survival finding’ was identified in multiple countries, including Australia, Germany, and China.

Overall, the studies found that ageism resulted in:

  • Limited work opportunities, ie not recruited because deemed too old
  • Denial of access to health care, including life-saving treatments
  • Exclusion from clinical trials, testing new drugs and procedures 
  • Limited resources, including medical services, rationed because of age 

Every country is ageist

Prof Levy and her team found that ageism from health professionals can impact on medical treatment in many ways, including the duration, frequency, and appropriateness of the treatment. Evidence of denied access to health care treatments was found in 85 per cent of all studies, which is horrendous. The study found ageism affects older people regardless of their age, sex, and racial/ethnic membership.

“We found evidence of ageism in every country we looked at, every year we looked at, and in every health domain we looked at,” says Levy. “The pervasiveness of it I found disturbing.”

We must recognise the influence of ageism on health

The researchers concluded that the study highlights the importance of recognising the influence of ageism on health, and policies to improve older people’s health must take ageism into account.

Treating people as different or inferior because they are not young damages them in so many ways. According to the study, ageism damages social relationships. It can also cause an individual to behave in risky ways because he or she doesn’t value his or herself anymore.

Get up, stand up for your rights!

I am no longer young, and I now stand up for the rights of older people. I would like to see medical staff educated about how damaging ageism can be. Improving education for health care providers about age-based bias means there will eventually be fewer negative health effects of ageism. 

I also think companies should be reminded to give older people a go in the workforce, as we are usually wiser and more experienced than our co-workers.

The study did find that people who stand up for themselves suffer less when confronted by ageism. You basically need to feel good about your age and have a positive perception. You are not old, just well-seasoned – you are aged to perfection! If you refuse to buy into negative stereotypes about your age, you will feel less anxious and be able to better handle any ageist comments when they come your way.

When you next see a person older than yourself, I want you to imagine your future self. And don’t turn away from older people, but instead of seeing infirmities or disabilities, congratulate older people for their resilience. Every older person is a stayer, someone who has refused to give up, someone with sticking power! It is truly time we re-humanised all older people.


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Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.


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