Ageing: The Role of Ageism

Thumyat Noe ’23

Figure 1. Older people are more likely to display depressive symptoms when presented with negative stereotypes of aging. 

Although the global average life expectancy has increased, there is little evidence to support that quality of life for older people has improved. Older adults are believed to be experiencing better health worldwide due to improvements in medical, psychological, and social resources, but the role of ageism in determining healthy aging is often disregarded. Ageism is a form of prejudice in which older adults are stereotyped as difficult, forgetful, frail, and helpless; these harmful stereotypes encourage younger people to disrespect and even abuse older adults. Furthermore, through self-fulfilling prophecy, older adults may internalize these negative stereotypes of aging. Perpetrators may also grow up to become targets of ageism later in their lifetime which can result in far more unhealthy aging due to their past role as a perpetrator of ageism. The following is a review of several findings that suggest how combating ageism can lead to healthy aging and improve quality of life for the elderly. 

Throughout the world, there has been a pervasive shift towards youth-oriented societies with increasing beliefs that older adults are a hindrance. For instance, in China, the elderly used to be revered, but recently, they are being viewed as burdensome and often neglected. Global news reports also illustrate that there are increasing concerns about how caring for the elderly may be wasteful. This has led many institutions to adopt a prejudiced attitude against the elderly which limits many job opportunities for them even though they are well-qualified and able. A meta-analysis also revealed that older adults performed worse on cognitive processing and memory tasks when reminded of misconceptions that cognitive abilities decline in older adults. Another study found that older participants who were reminded of myths regarding aging reported more loneliness, displayed depressive symptoms, and had poorer perceptions of their own health. In another study, participants who believed in negative stereotypes of aging lived on average 7.5 fewer years than participants who did not harbor such negative internalizations. A small group of studies have also reported that exposure to negative messages about aging can induce aging anxiety in younger adults, leading to unhealthy aging.

Negative stereotypes about aging can be physically harmful towards older adults as well; for example, falsely believing that physical abilities decline with growing age may lead older people to adopt sedentary lifestyles. Furthermore, healthcare professionals may attribute treatable diseases of older adults to old age, resulting in less comprehensive examinations and unwillingness to recommend aggressive treatment in older patients. There is increasing evidence supporting the idea that ageism can lead to unhealthy aging; hence, the effects of ageism should be studied more closely by researchers. Moreover, there should be increasing efforts to combat ageism worldwide in order to facilitate healthy aging for young adults and improve quality of life for older people. 

Work(s) Cited:

[1] S.R. Levy, et al., Ageing: The Role of Ageism. OBM Geriatrics 3, 1-19 (2019). doi:10.21926/obm.geriatr.1904083

[2] Image retrieved from: https://unsplash.com/photos/-c9N9RgjOPU

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