Scientists have long known that old age can bring about disease, but new research suggests old people are also susceptible to a larger force at play — ageism.

According to a study from the Yale School of Public Health, age-based discrimination is linked to poor health outcomes in elderly people. The comprehensive review, which was led by epidemiology and psychology professor Becca Levy, was published in the Public Library of Science One journal on Jan. 15. The researchers looked at past studies to find the connection between ageism and a broad range of health outcomes. According to their study, ageism has quantifiable negative impacts on older persons’ health.

“We looked at all of the studies that we could find on the topic, and they were conducted in 45 countries … and over 25 years, and we also looked at 11 health domains,” Levy said. “We found evidence of ageism impacting older persons’ health in each of the countries and in each of the years … That was a disturbing finding.”

This study is part of a larger project run by the World Health Organization. The project includes four research teams across the country in addition to Levy’s group. The project aims to tackle ageism by supporting evidence-based research on the topic.

The Yale group was interested in investigating the effects of structural ageism — as opposed to individual instances of discrimination on the basis of age — on older people’s health. Structural ageism, which refers to bias against the elderly that is reinforced by institutions including the government, schools and hospitals, has been historically under-researched. Levy and her team, who have previously conducted studies on the effects of individual ageism, were interested in how structural ageism affects the elderly.

The group sifted through over 13,000 papers with quantitative analyses of ageism’s effects on a wide range of issues, including physical health, mental health and employment. Then, the researchers evaluated the strength of the associations in these studies. They found that in 95.5 percent of the studies, ageism led to “significantly worse health outcomes,” the review concluded. This trend was observed across all investigated health domains, countries and years.

Despite these results, ageism remains one of the least widely recognized forms of discrimination, the study said. In addition, the number of studies on ageism has decreased over recent years and is not considered a priority of public health research, according to John Lee ’18, who contributed to the research during his time as a Yale undergraduate.

Researchers interviewed by the News emphasized the importance of structural changes and increased intergenerational understanding to combat ageism.

“While there should be an emphasis on youth leadership, it would be a huge disservice to not recognize elderly people as huge stakeholders, mentors and allies,” Lee said.

Having grown up with Korean grandparents, Lee said that he “love[s] imagining youth like me advocating on behalf of an older generation” and added that this sort of advocacy could bud into a full-fledged push for policy change.

Levy and Iggy Chang GRD ’22, the first author on the paper, agree that these results should be the trigger for a societal change in attitudes toward older people. Levy added that policymakers should act on these results, but “until then, it is important that people develop skills to resist ageism.”

In the future, Levy hopes to investigate the mechanism behind ageism and the way that people can overcome it. Chang emphasized the need to conduct more qualitative studies on ageism, in which researchers talk to older people to understand how they perceive it.

Ageism was coined in 1969 by Robert Neil Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging.

 

Charlotte Zimmer | charlotte.zimmer@yale.edu