The Economic and Health Toll of Ageism on Older Adults: Research Points to Ageism Costing the US $63 Billion Annually

In our society, the rising population of older adults brings to light the critical issue of ageism—not only as a prevalent form of discrimination but also as a significant contributor to economic and health dilemmas. Groundbreaking research has begun to quantify the profound effects of ageism, revealing a staggering economic burden alongside severe health consequences for older adults.

A seminal study published in The Gerontologist emphasizes the substantial economic costs and the exacerbation of health conditions due to ageism in the United States. It reports a jaw-dropping $63 billion annual cost attributed to ageism, affecting eight major health conditions among individuals aged 60 and older. This figure represents about 15.4% of the total expenditure on these conditions, underlining ageism’s hefty toll on the healthcare system.

The research categorizes ageism into three predictors: age discrimination (detrimental treatment based on age), negative age stereotypes (negative beliefs about older individuals), and negative self-perceptions of aging (older persons’ adverse beliefs about their own aging process). The interaction of these factors not only inflates healthcare costs significantly but also leads to an estimated 17.04 million cases of health conditions directly attributable to ageist attitudes.

Figure 1 Health care costs of age discrimination, negative age stereotypes,
and negative self-perceptions of aging in 1 year

Let’s illustrate the impact of ageism with the story of Michael a 65-year-old who, after being laid off due to company “restructuring,” struggled to find new employment. Encounters with subtle age discrimination during job interviews, where younger interviewers doubted her tech-savviness and ability to adapt, led Michael to internalize these ageist stereotypes, affecting her mental and physical health. This narrative is not uncommon and showcases the interplay of external discrimination and internalized ageism, culminating in adverse health outcomes.

Moreover, the study sheds light on the direct linkage between ageist perceptions and various health conditions. For example, older adults facing discrimination or harboring negative self-views about aging are more likely to develop cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and musculoskeletal disorders, among others. This link underscores the physiological toll that psychological and social factors of ageism can exact on individuals.

Table 1 Based on population of Americans aged 60 or older in 2013.

It is crucial to highlight that the implications of ageism extend beyond individual experiences to broader societal losses. Economic ramifications are palpable in diminished productivity, increased healthcare spending, and lost opportunities for growth. The study calls for a concerted effort to combat ageism, suggesting that even a 10% reduction in ageist attitudes could prevent 1.7 million cases of health conditions among older adults.

The narrative of Clara, an 80-year-old who joined a community program challenging age stereotypes through intergenerational activities, exemplifies successful intervention. By sharing her extensive knowledge and life experiences, Clara not only contributed to the community’s enrichment but also improved her self-perception of aging, leading to better health outcomes.

This comprehensive study not only quantifies the cost of ageism in stark economic and health terms but also calls for a shift in societal attitudes towards older adults. By fostering an environment of respect, inclusion, and opportunity for all ages, we can mitigate the detrimental impacts of ageism, benefiting both individuals and society at large. As we advance, let us remember the invaluable contributions of older adults and work towards dismantling the barriers of ageism, paving the way for a healthier, more inclusive future.

Reference:

Levy, Becca R et al. “Ageism Amplifies Cost and Prevalence of Health Conditions.” The Gerontologist vol. 60,1 (2020): 174-181. doi:10.1093/geront/gny131 

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