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Are YOU Ageist?

How internalizing outside ageism messages can be bad for your health and longevity

By Janet Reynolds

Most baby boomers think of ageism as something that happens to them. A younger boss thinks they're too old to learn a new technology. They're ignored in a store. A doctor speaks to the adult daughter accompanying them to a doctor's office rather than to the older person whose health is actually the purpose of that visit.

But what if we're also a little bit ageist ourselves?

A birthday cake with candles that read "Over the Hill" Next Avenue, ageism, ageist
"We're surrounded by messages, whether it's employers or popular culture or media writing about the gerontocracy … they're sending the message that we come with expiration dates."  |  Credit: Getty

That's right. Even as older adults rail against ageism, a lot of us simultaneously internalize messages that aging is somehow a negative, and then act accordingly by limiting what we do and how we perceive our options.

The examples can be as minor as forgetting where you put your keys or the name of the book your book club discussed last week and calling it a "senior moment" to declining to learn a language or try indoor rock climbing because you're "too old" to learn something new or tackle something perceived as something only younger people can do.

A Negative Thought Is Even More Negative

But here's the kicker: Even a little of that kind of self-regulation and negative thought, say increasing numbers of medical professionals, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that can lead to poorer health, a reduced lifestyle and, potentially, a shorter life.

"What I have found in my different studies is that negative age beliefs can impact physical health, mental health and physical function."

Yale professor Becca Levy has been studying this issue for decades and is direct about the need to reframe how people regard aging themselves. "What I have found in my different studies is that negative age beliefs can impact physical health, mental health and physical function," she says.

An award-winning professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health and psychology professor at Yale University, Levy, a 2022 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, sums up some of her decades of research on aging in her book, Breaking the Age Code, How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live.

Here are just a few of the findings from various studies outlined in her book about how believing negative ideas about aging can impact older people's health and lives:

  • On average those who have more positive age beliefs live 7.5 years longer than those who harbor negative age beliefs.
  • Those with positive age beliefs score higher on basic memory tasks than those with negative age beliefs.
  • Just ten minutes of discussion, or priming, about positive age beliefs before taking a memory test improves test outcomes. Those results were true regardless of whether the participants were 60 or 90, had different education levels, and whether they lived in a city or in the country.
  • Age beliefs affect physical health, too. Those who were primed with 10 minutes of positive age beliefs walked faster and had better balance than those who were primed with negative age beliefs. Additionally, the physical ability of the participants with positive age beliefs steadily improved during the study’s two-month period.
  • Those carrying the gene putting them at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease are 47% less likely to develop dementia if they have positive age beliefs.

A 2019 national poll on healthy aging by the University of Michigan is just one of many studies echoing Levy's findings. Over 82% of older adults who were polled reported experiencing some form of ageism daily. At the same time 36% of adults aged 50-80 were found to be internalizing ageism. Of those who saw aging in a more positive light, 55% reported being in excellent or very good physical health compared to 30% with fewer positive views.

A friend or colleague says, "You look great for your age," rather than "You look great."

Levy first got interested in the impact of age beliefs on older people after visiting her vibrant Grandma Horty shortly before beginning a fellowship in Japan, a country where elders are almost universally celebrated and incorporated into daily life. While in a grocery store together, her grandmother, a competitive golfer and avid walker, tripped over a wooden crate left in the aisle.

As they were leaving the store to tend to her cut, Grandma Horty told the store's owner not to leave crates in the middle of the aisles. His response? "Well, maybe you shouldn't be walking around. It's not my fault old people fall down all the time."

Subtle and Not-So-Subtle Messages About Aging

The impact of this statement went far beyond the obvious rudeness, Levy recounts. Her grandmother, she writes, almost immediately became less self-assured and independent. That night she asked Levy to water her avocado tree, a task she normally liked doing. The next day she asked Levy to drive her to her hair appointment, noting she didn't trust herself to drive.

Grandma Horty did return to her usual jaunty self before Levy left for Japan, but the impact of just that one ageist moment on Horty's mindset and behavior was top of mind for Levy as she witnessed, among other things, the national holiday Keiro No Hi, or Respect for the Aged Day, and daily celebrations and respect for those who are older. She returned to the States determined to study how age stereotypes impact people's health as they age.

That internal ageism occurs isn't that surprising. The subtle and not-so-subtle messages suggesting aging is negative, that decline is inevitable, and that older people are a burden rather than vibrant members of society is omnipresent from childhood in America. Movie characters are old codgers — "Grumpy Old Men" anyone? A friend or colleague says, "You look great for your age," rather than "You look great."

After age 50, birthday parties are often replete with black Over the Hill balloons and birthday cards whose punchlines read something like, "If you were a horse, you'd have been shot by now." No wonder over 80% of people between the ages of 50 and 80 hold ageist beliefs, according to a study by Julie Ober Allen, a University of Oklahoma assistant professor of health and exercise science.


"I hear people say a lot I'm too old to learn/do/start that but why is this?" says Janine Vanderburg, who at 65 started the non-profit Changing the Narrative to help end ageism. "It's because we're surrounded by messages, whether it's employers or popular culture or media writing about the gerontocracy … they're sending the message that we come with expiration dates."

"People don't understand the variability, that not all 60-year-olds are the same. We're not good at looking at context."

Sometimes, those messages even come from people studying aging, says Joann Montepare, a psychology professor and director of the Rosemary B. Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies at Lasell University. "I was just rereading an article by colleagues making the case that we as aging specialists and scholars do the same thing. 'Oh, it's a senior moment' — these unwitting ways we reinforce age stereotypes," she says. "As much as we know about it, we still fall prone to it."

Ageism — The Last Acceptable Prejudice

"Part of it comes from the idea that ageism is the last acceptable prejudice," Montepare continues. "It's the one that's always been there and there's the one kernel of truth so that reinforces it. People don't understand the variability, that not all 60-year-olds are the same. We're not good at looking at context."

An international leader in gerontology and professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Nancy Morrow-Howell helped develop WashU for Life, which is part of the global Age-Friendly Global University Network, a network of colleges focused on expanding educational opportunities for older people. As director of the university's Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging, Morrow-Howell promotes gerontological research and education across disciplines and schools — and still she struggles with negative self-talk about her age.

"The first question out of anyone's mouth is 'When are you going to retire?'" the 71-year-old professor says, noting it makes her question her own choice to continue working. "I have internalized the idea I should retire based on a certain chronological age."

"Generational differences are not anything new. The question as always is what you do with them."

She gives another example. "I wonder if I should be driving at night. Nobody has told me I shouldn't, but I worry do I have sensory impairment? Am I slower? Maybe I shouldn't drive at night," Morrow-Howell says. "I don't know what's real and what's artificial. Internal ageism increases this confusion for me because some of it is not real."

Awareness is Growing

Montepare, who is 68, says the generational model of how we measure different behaviors — think Gen Z vs. baby boomers, for instance — helps exacerbate these social messages. "Generational differences are not anything new. The question as always is what you do with them," she says. "They perpetuate myths and attitudes about being old and about being young."

The good news is that recognizing and bringing awareness to this issue is beginning to happen. And, as Levy's work and that of others show, that awareness can have positive implications beyond simply how society operates. Change in thinking can improve people's health almost immediately. In one of her studies, for instance, 100 adults with an average age of 81 showed both improved perceptions about aging and improved physical function after seeing positive images of aging.

To help recognize and combat internal ageism, Levy has created what she calls the ABCs of Age Liberation:

  • A is for Increase Awareness, both self-awareness and awareness of outside negative age beliefs
  • B is for Place Blame Where It Belongs. Put blame, where it’s needed, on ageism rather than aging itself.
  • C is for Challenge Negative Beliefs. When your doctor dismisses your sore right knee by saying something like, “Of course it hurts. You’re old,” perhaps nicely remind him that your left knee is just as old and does not hurt.

Organizations concerned about ageism generally have begun to recognize the need to address how seniors think about aging themselves. Changing the Narrative, for instance, launched a specific campaign to end internal ageism in January 2024 in part because they are so concerned about this aspect of ageism.

"We have this culture about the individual and that works against us in aging," sums up Montepare. "We have to embrace age however it may be. How do we put some value on aging and acceptance around that as opposed to avoiding it all the time."

Janet Reynolds is an award-winning journalist, editor and content strategist based in Connecticut with deep roots in alternative journalism and magazines. Janet's work has appeared in print and online in local, regional and national publications. Her website is Read More
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