Ageism is prejudice or discrimination against people based on their age. It typically applies to people who are older but can also affect young people. Ageism has a negative impact on physical and mental health, and reports link it with earlier death.

This information comes from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Ageism is a systemic form of oppression, but unlike other causes of inequity, such as racism, sexism, or ableism, anyone can experience it. Although it is universal, people do not always take ageism as seriously as other forms of inequity.

In this article, we will look at types and examples of ageism, its impact on health, and ways to end ageism.

An older woman in a meeting with a younger man as they discuss ageism in the workplace.Share on Pinterest
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There are many ways to categorize ageism. Terms that describe where ageism takes place include:

  • institutional ageism, which occurs when an institution perpetuates ageism through its actions and policies
  • interpersonal ageism, which occurs in social interactions
  • internalized ageism, which is when a person internalizes ageist beliefs and applies them to themselves

Ageism can also vary according to a situation. For example, hostile ageism involves someone having openly aggressive beliefs about age, such as that teenagers are violent or dangerous.

By contrast, benevolent ageism involves someone having patronizing beliefs towards people based on their age, such as that older adults are childlike and require guidance with basic tasks.

Another way to categorize ageism depends on whether a person is conscious of it or not. If they are, this is known as explicit ageism. If they are not aware of it, this is known as implicit ageism. For example, if a doctor unintentionally treats older and younger patients differently, this would be implicit ageism.

Data from the 2020 National Poll on Healthy Aging found that 82% of older Americans reported experiencing ageism regularly. The survey found that:

  • 65% experienced ageist messages from the media
  • 45% experienced interpersonal ageism
  • 36% had internalized ageism

Ageism comes in many forms. Some examples of ageism in the workplace include:

  • refusing to hire people over or under a certain age
  • asking for someone’s age at a job interview when it is not relevant to the work
  • enacting policies that unfairly privilege one age group over another
  • viewing older people as out of touch, less productive, or stuck in their ways
  • viewing younger people as unskilled, irresponsible, or untrustworthy
  • bullying or harassment

Some examples that appear in personal relationships include:

  • treating family members as though they are invisible, unintelligent, or expendable based on their age
  • making ageist jokes that imply someone is less valuable or less worthy of respect, based on their age
  • making offensive generalizations about a specific generation, e.g., that millennials are entitled
  • disregarding someone’s concerns or wishes due to their age
  • taking advantage of someone’s age for personal gain, such as to make money
  • using someone’s age as justification to undermine, deceive, or control them

Ageism can also lead to abuse. The WHO reports that in 2017, a review found that 1 in 6 people over the age of 60 experienced some form of elder abuse, which can include emotional, physical, sexual, or financial abuse.

According to a 2019 systematic review, ageism is widespread in healthcare around the world. It affects every aspect of healthcare, from diagnosis to prognosis. It also influences healthcare policies and workplace culture.

Infantilizing patients

A common way that benevolent ageism manifests in healthcare is through baby talk, which involves talking to older adults using the oversimplified language, terms of endearment, or rhythmic tone of voice a person might use for a child. A 2021 study refers to this as “elderspeak.”

While people often use elderspeak in an attempt to communicate more effectively with older adults, it is patronizing and can reinforce unequal power dynamics between caregivers and people they care for. Previous research also suggests it can create barriers, increasing resistance to care in people who have dementia.

Inaccurate perception of aging

A 2017 study cites a lack of knowledge about aging as one of the reasons ageism exists in healthcare. For example, older studies have found that doctors are less likely to refer older people with suicidal thoughts for mental health treatment, based on the idea that this is a “logical” experience in older age. This can have serious consequences.

Inaccurate ideas about aging can also lead to inappropriate medical care. For example, assuming that an older patient is less independent than they really are can result in the unnecessary use of diapers or bed rest. This ultimately makes people more dependent on others.

Less care, attention, and treatment

The 2017 study also notes that attitudes towards aging can contribute to healthcare staff spending less time with older patients. For example, research has found that ageism was associated with shorter, less effective, and more superficial communication from nurses.

The study’s report on social workers in healthcare settings found they spent less time with older people who have cancer compared with younger people. It also found that doctors are less patient, less respectful, and less involved with the care of older people. This results in unfair differences in treatment not based on medical needs.

Lower levels of health

In addition to how healthcare teams treat people, a person’s own views about age may impact their health. Longitudinal studies of younger adults have found that ageist beliefs were associated with higher rates of certain diseases as they aged. Cardiovascular disease, memory impairment, and lower will to live were all higher in this group.

This may be because people who have ageist beliefs are less likely to look after their health or maintain habits that reduce the risk of illness in later life.

Coercion and violence

Both young and older people may face coercion or violence in healthcare due to the perception that their feelings do not matter. Staff may treat them with less compassion or force them to undergo procedures.

Until 2010, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) endorsed the practice of controlling children in the dentist chair by using a technique known as the hand over mouth exercise (HOME). This involves a dentist placing their hand over the child’s mouth when they are scared or anxious in order to physically restrain them.

Shortly after the AAPD banned this practice, 50% of dentists still felt it was acceptable. However, there are nonphysical ways of managing patients with dental anxiety, which dentists regularly use for children and adults. This suggests a difference in attitudes based on age.

Ageism does not only affect individuals — it has far-reaching consequences. These include:

  • Higher rates of illness: Ageism reduces people’s physical and mental health, increasing their care needs and reducing quality of life as they get older. It is also associated with risk-taking behaviors, such as smoking, drinking, and an unhealthy diet.
  • Higher healthcare spending: According to the WHO, the United States spends billions of dollars per year treating health conditions due to ageism.
  • Poverty: Higher healthcare costs, as well as a lack of health insurance, exacerbates poverty. This can be especially difficult for people who are retired, who have lost their partner or spouse, or who cannot work due to disability or illness. Poverty also worsens health, creating a vicious cycle.
  • Lower life expectancy: Ageism is associated with earlier death, causing a decrease of 7.5 years on average.

The number of older adults in the U.S. is growing, making ageism an increasingly important issue.

The WHO states there are three ways to combat ageism:

  • education to dispel myths and stereotypes and raise awareness of the impact of ageism
  • intergenerational interventions, which create cooperation and empathy between age groups
  • law and policy changes, which can reduce inequity and discrimination

These efforts require commitment from governments and institutions, as they hold the most power to create change.

On an individual level, people can contribute to these efforts by being an ally. Allyship involves dedicating personal time and energy to taking action against ageism by:

  • Becoming aware of ageism: Reflect on how ageism shapes one’s own thoughts, feelings, and life experiences.
  • Learning about ageism: Learn how ageism affects others by listening to personal stories, reading books, and researching.
  • Developing skills: Learn about and practice advocacy skills, such as knowing when to speak up and when to step back.
  • Taking action: Put this knowledge into practice. Try correcting ageist stereotypes, challenging ageist jokes, or speaking out against ageist discrimination. Remember that this does not involve rescuing people, but supporting and advocating for them in situations where they are struggling to be heard.

Ageism is a systemic form of oppression against people of specific age groups. It affects older adults most severely but can also impact young people. It is based on prejudice, such as the idea that all older adults are unintelligent or uncooperative, or that young adults are not worth taking seriously.

Ageism is widespread in healthcare, which is especially harmful since older people are more likely to need medical care as they age. This leads to discrimination, lower quality care, and preventable illness and disability.

Because most people age, ageism is a form of inequity that affects everybody. Education, intergenerational understanding and cooperation, and policy change are necessary to end it.

Learn more about aging and health here.