Magazine article Aging Today

Ageism and Acts of Discrimination Take a Toll on Health

Magazine article Aging Today

Ageism and Acts of Discrimination Take a Toll on Health

Article excerpt

Andrea is a 71-year-old professional with an active social life. Recently, she noticed that people have been treating her differently. At her doctor's office, the receptionist raised her voice and spoke slowly to her, despite speaking normally to younger patients. When picking up her car after dinner, the valet looked at her skeptically and asked, "Are you okay to drive at night, Grandma?" At her job, Andrea's boss passed her over for a big project because "it requires learning a new technology."

Andrea and her story may be fictional, but experiences like these aren't uncommon. In national surveys, 30 percent of American adults report they have been treated unfairly in their day-to-day lives on the basis of age. Being treated poorly by others is unpleasant, but do such everyday experiences with discrimination have lasting consequences for the individual's health? We recently addressed this question in a study published in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry (http://goo.gl/9lsWkx; 2014) with data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a large-scale study of Americans older than age 50 and their spouses, funded by the National Institute on Aging (http://goo.gl/AsxOeV).

Effects of Ageism Reflected in Health Measures

In addition to being asked about their experiences with discrimination, the HRS regularly evaluates participants' health. We examined indicators covering three broad areas of health: physical, emotional and cognitive. Physical health was measured with participants' self-evaluation of their health (with the question, "Would you say your health is excellent, very good, good, fair, or poor?") and disease burden, calculated as the sum of diseases from a detailed medical history. For emotional health, participants reported on their overall well-being (measured by agreement with the statement, "I am satisfied with my life.") and feelings of loneliness (measured with questions such as, "How much of the time do you feel left out?"). For cognitive health, participants completed a memory task (the number of words remembered from a 10-item list both immediately and after a five-minute delay) and a mental status assessment. Participants completed these measures twice, once in 2006 and again in 2010.

We tested whether participants who reported experiencing discrimination based upon their age were in worse health across these three domains than those who had not had such experiences. The results were striking. Participants who had experienced age discrimination were physically in poor health, were living with more chronic diseases, were less satisfied with their lives and experienced more loneliness. What is more, over the four-year follow-up period, participants who had experienced age discrimination showed greater declines in their physical and emotional health than those who had not experienced such discrimination.

As people get older, their health tends to get worse and they are more likely to be discriminated against because of their age. As such, it may be the case that the association between age discrimination and health would simply be due to aging. Yet, all of these associations were still apparent when we accounted for this shared relation with chronological age: The experience of such unfair treatment contributes to declines in health over and above the effect of getting older.

Other, More Harmful Effects of Age Discrimination

In addition to age discrimination, participants in the HRS could attribute discriminatory experiences to other personal characteristics-specifically race, ancestry, sex, body weight, physical disability, other aspects of appearance or sexual orientation. …

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