In many ways, ageism is similar to other forms of discrimination. Images, language and widely-held expectations communicate and reinforce negative stereotypes about a large, diverse group of people.
“How many times have you heard your parents say, ‘Oh gosh, I’m having a senior moment,’” Betsy Abramson asks students at an event organized by the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing’s Center for Aging Research and Education.
“It’s not a senior moment,” says Abramson, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging. “Haven’t any of you forgotten your keys or your cell phone or where you left your backpack? So why do we attribute a minor lapse in memory as being due to our age?”
Ageism is unique in that it takes root when people are young and don’t identify strongly with older adults.
“Unlike race and gender stereotypes, we acquire age stereotypes before they can apply to us,” explains Abramson. “By the time we do reach older age and the stereotypes become more self-relevant, we’ve already internalized them.” When that happens, many people “lack the defenses to ward off the impact of those negative stereotypes and self-perceptions.”
Ageism often makes people reluctant to be “out” about their age, which creates a vicious cycle.
If everyone is silent or lies about their age, “no wonder younger people don’t think they know anyone who’s older and active,” says Abramson. “Don’t ask, don’t tell didn’t work well for gay people. I don’t think it works well for older people.”
The impact of ageism goes beyond societal expectations and self-image. It can, quite literally, make you sick.
At the Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging, Abramson and her colleagues develop and offer evidence-based programs that promote healthy aging, including the “Living Well” chronic disease self-management and “Stepping On” falls prevention workshops.
“People who think health problems are inevitable as they age are less likely to engage in preventative behaviors,” says Abramson. Older adults “who think arthritis, difficulty sleeping and heart disease are all normal aging stuff are less likely to see a physician. They’re less likely to get blood pressure screenings, to get flu shots, to wear their seatbelts, or to engage in any exercise.”
“Not surprisingly,” continues Abramson, “these negative perceptions about aging become self-fulfilling. These older adults do have higher levels of arthritis, hearing loss and heart disease than those who attribute disabilities to other causes,” rather than just aging.
Research by Becca Levy, PhD, Professor of Epidemiology and Psychology at the Yale School of Public Health, documents how age stereotypes affect older adult health. Positive attitudes towards aging are associated with higher recovery rates from severe disability, improved memory and cognitive function, and lower risk of cardiovascular events.
Remarkably, attitudes towards aging affect longevity more than blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index, exercise or smoking.
“Those with positive attitudes towards aging increase their longevity by seven and a half years,” says Abramson. “Imagine if there was a virus that shortened everyone’s life by seven and a half years. Wouldn’t we be doing all that we could to stop it? Wouldn’t NIH be pouring money into solving it?”
Paying attention to the language used to describe aging and older adults is a good first step.
“Try to catch yourself, every time you describe an older adult and use the words ‘still’ or ‘but’ or ‘despite,’” Abramson suggests. “As in, ‘My 83 year-old mother still drives,’ or ‘My uncle is 91 but he’s got all his marbles,’ or ‘Though she’s 85, she’s really active.’”
“If you’re using that kind of language, you’re saying that the older adult who is driving, mentally sharp or active is an exception,” she adds. “You’re saying that the typical older adult is not any of those things.”
In addition to avoiding ageist language, “It’s really important to be honest about your age,” says Abramson. “It’s important to have friends in all generations. Like having friends from different cultures, it helps you get a richer perspective. It helps you realize that ageism is bad for everyone’s health, from older adults to little kids.”