How Ageism Affects Your Health

November 1, 2010

By Jeanie Keogh

Your Healthy Brain If you have ever said ‘I’m too old’ you could be perpetuating ageism. Interestingly, older people buy into ageist beliefs more so than younger people, according to Dr. Stephen Kiraly, geriatric psychiatrist and author of the book Your healthy brain: a personal & family guide to staying healthy & living longer

“The interesting thing about ageism is that it’s very often old people who believe in ageism. They’re not just being victimized by society. They also do it to themselves,” he said.

Thinking you are over-the-hill is an outdated or superstitious idea that leads to depression in many cases, Kiraly said.

“If you have a belief and you don’t test it out whether it’s true or not, or real or not, it becomes a kind of dogma or a delusion that isn’t modified,” Kiraly said.

For example, older people underestimate how much time they have to live even though statistical evidence on average life expectancy is much higher than they think.

“Very often you meet someone who is 85 and is healthy they say, ‘Well, I’m not going to live much longer,’ but usually they do live longer, they live longer than they thought they were going to live. So there is this kind of interesting bias in terms of how long a person will live,” he said.

Maintaining a healthy attitude about aging is the first step to overcoming the problem as well as combating the notion that illness and diseases are normal amongst the elderly.

“A lot of illnesses are age-related and as people get older they do have various ailments which is common, but then to generalize from that to say, ‘That’s inevitable. That’s the way everybody will be’ is really very counterproductive because healthy old people are very capable of doing interesting, wonderful and useful things. They’re not sick people just waiting to get well or waiting to die,” he said.

The problem with ageism, Kiraly stressed, is that people who believe their life will soon be over become self-defeating and neglect themselves, and either don’t seek medical attention or become a burden on the system.

“What we have now is people getting sick around 65 or even sooner. They have all these chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension and strokes. They might not live to be 80 but they’re spending the last 10 or 15 or 20 years of their lives being very sick or in heavy pain and having a very poor quality of life, being a drain on the health care system and the economy. But we also know that a more preferable situation is actually possible and highly desirable,” Kiraly said.

Working Senior ManAnother ageist stronghold in our society is the age that older people are supposed to retire, Kiraly said.

“When you get to be 65, which today isn’t very old, you’re supposed to retire, get a golden handshake and money and go away somewhere. This is a really old-fashioned idea and it’s not sustainable. It’s not financially sustainable and it’s psychologically devastating,” he said, adding that, nearing 65, he has no desire to disappear into the woodwork to play bingo and tend his garden.

The important thing is for Western culture to begin to reassess how it views the contribution older people make and seeing their optimal health as integral to a thriving community, he said.

“People who are healthy into old age contribute to the economy, they are productive, they pay taxes, they run businesses, they don’t just use up health care dollars,” he said.

So while youth may be wasted on the young, the elixir of later years is in not living like there is no tomorrow, but that there is one.

Have you encountered ageism? Do you catch yourself thinking ageist beliefs?

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