Ageism and its consequences

What is ageism and why is it a problem?

Ageism is a form of stigmatization that results from our stereotypes (how we think about others that are different) and prejudices (how we feel about others because they are different). With regard to ageism, such stigmatization is due to our bias regarding age and aging. It stems from incorrect beliefs such as overestimating negative age-related changes. In short, we think more about the negative changes that occur with age and unconsciously discount the positive ones. This type of bias is the most prevalent type of discrimination. For example, in a survey, ageist attitudes have been reported by almost 35% of all survey participants over the age of 18 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5550624). More worrisome, ageism is prevalent at all levels of society: individual, organizational, and institutional, and it appears to be pretty resistant to elimination at present.

Part of the reinforcement of such bias in people is due to the consistent reporting of cognitive-related challenges that increase with age while positive changes that come with age are only minimally reported. Commonly reported age-related cognitive challenges include the myth of memory decline. Unfortunately, when people are exposed to such negative ageist attitudes, they report greater worries about developing dementia.

Notwithstanding, positive changes occur as people get older, including an increase in a) wisdom and knowledge base, b) vocabulary, and c) procedural memory to name a few age-related improvements. The purpose of studying cognitive decline is, for example, the identification of therapeutic techniques, as opposed to ‘shooting ourselves in the foot’- so to speak- by discriminating against ourselves and others as we get older, which in turn negatively impacts our own functioning (see below).

Another important point relates to the fact that there is a difference between dementia (a disease process) and normal aging processes. Strategy use, remaining physically and mentally active, using stress management strategies, and healthy diet can be helpful tools in combating functional decline.

How can we decrease our bias against older adults?

One helpful approach would be utilizing the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which includes challenging our thoughts by finding actual evidence. keep in mind that neither our thoughts nor our opinions or emotions are facts. Rather, our thoughts and opinions are based on assumptions and heuristics (thinking shortcuts). These assumptions need to be checked before we can be fully confident in our own opinions and beliefs (thoughts).

As humans (i.e., society as well as individuals including professionals), we can learn to identify and challenge our incorrect assumptions that drive our thoughts, and replace these assumptions and misconceptions with actual evidence, thereby creating a healthier outlook for society and ourselves as we age. As mentioned above, many positive changes happen as we age including an increase in wisdom, knowledge base (semantic memory), confidence and stability. Thus, although we all will eventually go the same way (i.e., death is inevitable), we can choose how we view the aging process. This change in attitude can in turn positively impact our own well-being throughout the aging process. Optimal aging or successful aging is possible. Most important, beyond physical health, is brain and cognitive health.

If you want to learn more about how to support your own cognitive health as you age, you can read more at the following links: https://mindyourbrain.com.co/healthycognitiveaging-inthe21st-centurythe2nd-puzzlepieceto-the-successfulaging-concept/ and https://mindyourbrain.com.co/aging/brain-health-and-cognitive-health/

Society and ageism

Our functional levels (how well we function in society) and how we can apply our individual abilities within society (e.g., our talents) depend on how society (i.e., friends, family, acquaintances, governmental agencies) views and implements policies. In other words, how we function is a result of interactions between society and the individual. This view thus opposes the incorrect belief that it’s all 100% personal or individual responsibility as to how we function in life. The interaction between individual and society can be supportive or detrimental. In the domain of aging, which is of course important to all of us, evidence has been published showing that people’s cognitive functioning is negatively impacted by ageist views. Moreover, more recent evidence has been provided that has connected negative ageist views to the development of Alzheimer’s disease (i.e. biomarkers of negative brain changes associated with the stress experienced due to negative ageist attitude: Levy et.al., 2016).

Thus, making an effort in changing our unconscious but detrimental belief systems and biases against aging is required to allow society to enter a healthier stage in terms of life development by allowing us to perceive and correctly interpret evidence that we might otherwise discount due to unconscious bias. In society, the myth about declining memory or cognitive decline with age can lead to an attitude of not using cognitive strategies, thereby unnecessarily decreasing the level of functioning.

How does research fare in the area of cognitive aging?

At the research level, these same cognitive errors express themselves in different ways (misinterpretation of data): For example, while completing a meta-analysis in cognitive aging, I found evidence that some older adults (>65 yrs old) performed better on cognitive tests than younger adult (< 30 years old). One thought that came up in the team was to discount this evidence as statistical outliers. However, it became clear with some searching/ investigation that one of the factors involved was the degree of familiarity with a task, which in turn decreased the required processing time (that is, the person processed the information faster). I would argue that familiarity with a task is not the only factor that allows older adults to outperform younger adults, however.

You can learn about efforts to combat ageism here: http://notoageism.com/

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Ageism and its consequences
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What is Aegism, and why is an issue
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Mind your Brain
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