Category Archives: Ageism

The ways in which negative stereotyping impacts on older people

Negative stereotypes trigger loneliness & dependency in older people

The attitudes that people have about ageing have been shown to have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing in later life. An interesting study focused on the impact of internalised ageism on feelings of loneliness and dependency.

The research found that exposure to a negative ageing-stereotype increased self-reported loneliness compared to a positive ageing-stereotype or a control condition. Additionally, participants were more risk averse in the negative age-stereotype condition than in the positive age-stereotype or control condition. The results highlight that the mere activation of negative stereotypes can cause older people to adopt a condition that is reminiscent of dependent states, where they complain about their loneliness but remain passive, avoiding any behavioural initiative or risk taking.

A second aspect of the research showed that priming ageing stereotypes influenced health perception and extraversion, with participants in the negative condition declaring being in a more deteriorated state of health and describing themselves as less extraverted than their counterparts in the positive stereotype condition. A crucial finding of this part of the research was the fact that stereotype priming impacts older people’s help-seeking behaviour. More specifically, a negative age-stereotype priming increased help-seeking compared to a positive age stereotype priming.

The researchers concluded that the implications of their findings were straightforward – “The mere activation of a negative stereotype leads older individuals to feel lonely, to depreciate their health status, to avoid taking any risks and to systematically seek for help in their social environment. These effects are similar to those symptoms that are frequently encountered in an institutionalized context of enhanced dependency.”

The research can be accessed here.

Attributing illness to ‘old age’ increases risk of mortality

The dissemination of stereotypical beliefs about ageing have led to endorsement of the myth that ‘to be old is to be ill.’ This negative stereotype can have very concerning effects on health and longevity.

An interesting piece of research examined older people’s beliefs about the causes of their chronic illness (ie, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc.) and tested the hypothesis that attributing the onset of illness to ‘old age’ is associated with negative health outcomes. A series of multiple regressions (controlling for chronological age, gender, income, severity of chronic conditions, functional status and health locus of control) demonstrated that ‘old age’ attributions were associated with more frequent perceived health symptoms, poorer health maintenance behaviours and a greater likelihood of mortality at 2-year follow-up. The probability of death was more than double among participants who strongly endorsed the ‘old age’ attribution as compared to those who did not (36% vs. 14%).

The findings are further evidence of the toxic impact of internalised negative stereotypes about ageing and should be considered as an important component of interventions to improve the health and wellbeing of older people.

The research can be found by clicking here.

Facebook as a site for negative age stereotypes

Research by Becca Levy and colleagues has found ageism to exist in social networking sites. She conducted a content analysis of each publicly accessible Facebook group that concentrated on older individuals. The site “Descriptions” of the 84 groups, with a total of 25,489 members, were analysed. The mean age category of the group creators was 20–29; all were younger than 60 years. Consistent with the research hypothesis, the Descriptions of all but one of these groups focused on negative age stereotypes. Among these Descriptions, 74% excoriated older individuals, 27% infantilized them, and 37% advocated banning them from public activities, such as shopping. Facebook has the potential to break down barriers between generations; in practice, it may have erected new ones.

To read the full research

Impact of stereotypical attitudes on health and wellbeing

Ageism largely remains a socially tolerated form of discrimination. From birthday cards to anti-ageing advertisements and comedy sketches, stereotypical ideas about older people and the ageing process abound. While generally trivialized in mainstream culture, this article argues that ageism is, in fact, a serious matter. Drawing from a growing evidence base, the article highlights the significant and largely detrimental impact that ageist stereotypes have on people’s outcomes in later life. It then goes on to analyse some of the possible mechanisms through which stereotypes generate this effect, and finally concludes with a brief outline of some of the psychosocial interventions that might enable older people to weaken or neutralize the toxic effects of internalized negative self-perceptions of ageing. Note: the structural and power relationship dimensions of ageism, while hugely important, are not considered within this article as its focus is on the psychological and emotional dimensions and their impact on personal health and well-being outcomes, an aspect of ageist stereotyping that is seldom discussed.

Access to article here

Positive attitudes towards ageing protect against dementia

One of the strongest risk factors for dementia is the ε4 variant of the APOE gene. Yet, many who carry it never develop dementia. The current study examined for the first time whether positive age beliefs that are acquired from the culture may reduce the risk of developing dementia among older individuals, including those who are APOE ε4 carriers. The cohort consisted of 4,765 Health and Retirement Study participants who were aged 60 or older and dementia-free at baseline. As predicted, in the total sample those with positive age beliefs at baseline were significantly less likely to develop dementia, after adjusting for relevant covariates. Among those with APOE ε4, those with positive age beliefs were 49.8% less likely to develop dementia than those with negative age beliefs. The results of this study suggest that positive age beliefs, which are modifiable and have been found to reduce stress, can act as a protective factor, even for older individuals at high risk of dementia.

Access to the research paper here

Optimism associated with exceptional longevity

Optimism is a psychological attribute characterised as the general expectation that good things will happen, or the belief that the future will be favorable because one can control important outcomes. It is an attitude to life which can be significantly undermined by the challenges often experience in later life. Numerous studies have reported that more optimistic individuals are less likely to suffer from chronic diseases and die prematurely. The results of this new study go further and suggest that optimism is specifically related to 11 to 15% longer life spans, on average, and to greater odds of achieving “exceptional longevity,” that is, living to the age of 85 or beyond. These relations were independent of socioeconomic status, health conditions, depression, social integration, and health behaviors (e.g., smoking, diet, and alcohol use).

These findings indicate that optimism is an important psychosocial resource for people to pay attention to and develop in later life. This is especially important as ageist stereotypes can begin to be internalised as people age.

Access to the original research here (behind a paywall)

Negative attitudes about ageing shorten lives

How we think about ageing has been shown to have a very significant impact on how long we live. One of the first pieces of research to illustrate the power of negative attitudes in this context was carried out by a researcher called Becca Levy.  She looked at how people involved in a long-term study on ageing had answered five questions on their attitudes towards their own ageing .  Based on their answers, she was able to divide the participants in two groups – those who felt positive about their own ageing and those who felt negatively about it.  When these were compared with their death records over 20 years later, she found that, on average, people with the positive attitudes towards their own ageing lived 7.5 years longer than those who expressed negative attitudes!  An extra 7.5 years of life is something that many of the lifestyle changes commonly advocated for a long and healthy life cannot match (e.g. stopping smoking, more exercise, lowering cholesterol and achieving a healthy weight for your height etc)!  

The researchers concluded with a strong call to action to address the ageist stereotyping –

If a previously unidentified virus was found to diminish life expectancy by over 7 years, considerable effort would probably be devoted to identifying the cause and implementing a remedy. In the present case, one of the likely causes is known: societally sanctioned denigration of the aged. A comprehensive remedy requires that the denigrating views and actions directed at elderly targets undergo delegitimization by the same society that has been generating them.

To look at the original research click this link