Mind & Body

The Most Common Form of Prejudice May Surprise You

There are around 600 million people in the world who are 60 or older. By 2025, that number is expected to double. Science and medicine are always advancing to extend the human lifespan, yet surprisingly little has been done to study society's attitudes about aging. That's especially true when it comes to ageism, which by some accounts is the single most widespread form of prejudice.

An Epidemic of Ageism

Unfortunately, the true prevalence of ageism is hard to measure simply because there hasn't been much research on the topic. Last month, a review of the current research found that studies into how many people hold ageist beliefs have widely varying results, but even on the low end, the numbers are shocking: Rates varied from 50 percent of participants in a small Sri Lankan study of nursing students to 100 percent in an American survey of more than 300 people. Not all of the biases were negative — for example, most respondents in the American survey said they hold doors open for people because of their age — but they still involved ageist assumptions and stereotypes.

"Ageism is now thought to be the most common form of prejudice," said coauthor Donna Wilson, "and the issue is, we don't even recognize how prevalent it is and how impactful it is."

People with ageist beliefs may often mean well, but the effects of ageism aren't so nice. For example, a 2001 survey found that more than 77 percent of older people reported being the target of ageist behaviors, which ranged from being told ageist jokes to being mistreated by doctors. What's more, young people with negative ageist views can grow up to be old people with negative ageist views, and those internalized beliefs can take a toll, as a 2002 Yale study illustrated. It found that older people who have a negative view of aging are likely to live 7.5 years less on average than those who viewed aging in a more positive light.

Subtle Ageism Is Everywhere

Part of the problem may be the fact that ageism is not only tolerated, but it often goes completely unnoticed, which results in many forms of ageism to be considered normal. As Laura A. Robbins writes for the American Society on Aging, "We can't imagine 'anti-women' or 'anti-black' products, yet we buy into ads for billions of dollars worth of 'anti-aging' creams and cosmetic products."

Robbins also points out that even the simple definition of "older adults" could be considered ageist. "Older adulthood covers about forty or more years (from age 60 to ages 100 and older, approximately). Our society would never lump together a 10-year-old with a 50-year-old, yet routinely we lump older adults together, assuming a 60-year-old is the same as a 100-year-old."

Check Yourself

Luckily, there's work being done to fight this trend. In 2012, eight major aging organizations joined together to discuss the best ways to combat ageism. Since then, they've been working diligently to reframe many of the questions and unchecked beliefs surrounding aging and ageism. But for this effort to take hold, people need to do what they can on an individual level.

One way to do that is by questioning your own beliefs. In that American survey of ageist beliefs, many people thought telling someone they don't look that old or complimenting them on how good they look despite their age were positive behaviors — but, the researchers noted, both of these implied that looking old is inherently bad. Likewise, it might sound logical when a doctor assumes a person's ailments are due to their advanced age, but it doesn't make scientific sense: Chronological age doesn't "cause" ailments, and that belief could be covering up a real problem. Everyone is valuable, and unquestioned beliefs about older people discount their very real contributions to society.

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Dive deeper with "This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism" by author, activist, and TED speaker Ashton Applewhite. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Brian VanHooker June 20, 2019

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