The Impact of Ageism on Elders' Mental Health


Ageism is a pervasive issue with profound implications for mental health. Negative stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes can lead to feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression in older adults. Ageism can affect self-worth and self-esteem, making people more vulnerable to stress and mental health issues. However, there is hope in combating ageism through awareness, relationships, role models, and recognizing the uniqueness of each individual. Addressing ageism is crucial for creating a more inclusive and mentally healthy society that values and respects people of all ages.

Key Words:

ageism, mental health, aging anxiety


Recently, I was in the audience at an event when the person on stage, having forgotten their glasses, said into the microphone, “Don’t get old, folks.” The insidiousness of this offhand comment went largely unnoticed by the crowd. After all, people hear sentiments like this almost every day and frequently express similar thoughts to themselves. The message amplified to the crowd that day was, “Getting older is bad.”

“So what?” you might say. “Getting older is bad” is right up there with “the sky is blue” or “water is wet,” isn’t it? This oft-perpetuated myth is one of the first barriers one must overcome to recognize ageism. Aging is a complex process that includes growth, decline, development, adaptation, and loss. Falling prey to ageism can paradoxically hasten or manifest the very aspects of aging of which we were afraid.

Ageism is a pervasive and often-overlooked form of discrimination that affects people at every stage of life. Ageism occurs when people judge, have preconceived notions about, or mistreat others based upon their age. It involves stereotypes, biases, and discriminatory behavior linked to how old someone is. These biases affect our thoughts, emotions, and actions. Ageism occurs unconsciously, in our thoughts and feelings, and consciously when we intentionally judge someone based on age (e.g., that person is too old to understand technology).

Importantly, ageism is also directed inward when we have negative and limiting beliefs based upon age (e.g., I am too old to learn something new; I do not want people to know how old I am). This is called internalized or self-directed ageism, and it results from years of absorbing negative cultural messages about aging.

I would place a wager that you have heard someone claim they are “too old” to try something new or make a significant change. These self-limiting beliefs are often learned. We are not born ageists; we are taught that old age is a time to be feared, a time of loss without gain, and that we better be careful because, well—Don’t get old, folks.

‘Ageism results when we downplay the value of wisdom, knowledge and life experience that comes with aging.’

Negative cultural messages about aging drive ageism. These messages include youth-centric beauty and shame-based beauty standards that tell us to look our best; we need to look and feel “younger.” Ageism dictates that in older age, we are “past our prime” or “over the hill.” Media representation often portrays older people in limited and stereotypical roles, such as being forgetful or overly conservative. Ageism results when we downplay the value of wisdom, knowledge and life experience that comes with aging. All forms of ageism can lead to a lack of value for older people, making them feel irrelevant or unimportant to society.

Ageism can manifest in various ways, from workplace discrimination to social exclusion. No matter the setting, ageism’s impact on health is profound and far-reaching. The negative and limiting beliefs about growing older manifest in lowered self-esteem and confidence and make people vulnerable to increased stress (Orth et al., 2010). Ageism is increasingly recognized as a significant contributor to anxiety, depression, lowered life satisfaction, loneliness, and decreased physical and mental health (Bryant et al., 2012).

While it may seem harmless to distance ourselves from identifying as “old” or to express shame or reluctance to share our age with others, it is anything but harmless. Feelings of shame, fear, anxiety, and dread about aging damage our opportunities for good health, happiness, and well-being. Decades of research demonstrate the profound influence of negative attitudes about aging on mental health. Here are just a few startling statistics:

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 6.3 million cases of depression worldwide can be attributed to the effects of ageism (WHO, 2021).
  • Age discrimination affects financial strain, which increases women’s depressive symptoms (Shippee et al., 2019).
  • Internalized ageism is a risk factor for suicidal ideation (Gendron et al., 2023).
  • Experiencing ageism increases the odds of poor mental health and depressive symptoms (Allen et al., 2022).
  • Experiencing discrimination because of one’s age can lead to chronic stress and anxiety. This stress can have a cumulative effect on mental health over time, contributing to conditions like anxiety disorders (Kang et al, 2022).

Ageism can erode an individual’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem. When people are consistently marginalized or made to feel undervalued, they may internalize these negative perceptions. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy and a loss of purpose, which can contribute to mental health issues and depression.

In addition to ageism’s direct impact on mental health, negative stereotypes about older people, such as being seen as “out of touch” or “unproductive,” can lead to exclusion from social activities, workplaces and even within families. Social isolation is an epidemic that causes loneliness and despair. Loneliness alone increases the risk of developing dementia by 50%, the risk of having a stroke by 30%, and mortality risk by 26% (Holt-Lundstad et al., 2015; Valtorta et al., 2016).

Challenge your own preconceived notions about aging and being old and appreciate it as a crucial facet of personal growth.

Through the exclusion of older people, ageism can exacerbate or even cause isolation and loneliness. In essence, ageism contributes to a vicious cycle of chronic rejection. Notably, “othering” also can be self-imposed due to internalized ageism. We can self-embody the stereotypes of old age and remove ourselves from social situations with thoughts such as, “At my age, what could I possibly contribute?” or, “I am afraid that people will ignore me when I speak.”

The resulting fear and discomfort keep older people from actively participating in social gatherings and events. What is essential to understand is that even self-imposed isolation can be unwanted and lonely. Ageism and loneliness often co-occur, and combined, they can increase psychological distress (Ribeiro-Gonçalves et al., 2023). One thing we all learned during the COVID-19 pandemic was the vital importance of sustaining social relationships for our mental and physical health.

While there is ample evidence that negative attitudes about aging are bad for physical and mental health, there also is evidence that the inverse is true. Research shows that people with high psychological well-being who are proud of their age experience fewer negative emotions, are more optimistic about their future, and are more self-confident about their physical bodies (Kang & Kim, 2022).

Aging has its perks, which can protect us and help us develop resilience in later life. Resilience, the ability to recover quickly from difficulties and challenges, has been found to buffer the impact of ageism and protect mental health among older adults (Ribeiro-Gonçalves et al., 2023). The challenges we encounter throughout our lives help us develop robust coping mechanisms that buffer the impact of ageism. There are beautiful and vital benefits that come with age, such as the ability for integrative thinking, an increased sense of well-being (even with chronic conditions and morbidity!), lower stress, and easier recovery from adversity (MacLeod et al., 2016).

Raising your awareness of ageism can help you identify self-limiting thoughts and potentially enhance your perspective on aging. Do you find yourself saying, “I’m not old; I’m just experienced?” If so, take a moment to reflect on the concept of aging.

“Old” can encompass many qualities, such as wisdom and knowledge. Recognize that everything you have encountered in your journey to becoming who you are today is an integral part of your aging process. It is important to remember that the issue lies not in being old but in the social values attached to it. With this awareness, you can challenge your own preconceived notions about aging and being old and instead appreciate it as a crucial facet of personal growth.

Also, there are essential steps we can all take to reduce the impact of ageism to promote a more inclusive society that promotes good mental health for all ages.

  • Develop a solid social network of friends (of all ages!). Relationships help people cope with the effects of ageism by promoting a sense of belonging.
  • Remember that age is relative. Being older or younger than someone else can be judgment-free. Instead of using the words old and young with value, remove any bias by referencing age about yourself—as in, “younger than” or “older than.”
  • Seek out a role model—or become one. Having positive role models of all ages can provide guidance and inspiration. It is especially impactful to have a role model that is younger and one that is older than you.
  • Think individually. When you have met one person who is 80—you have met one person who is 80. Remember that age alone does not tell you anything meaningful about someone. We are all the products of our individual and unique life experiences.

Ageism is not just a matter of societal prejudice; it has far-reaching implications for mental health. As a society, addressing ageism is a matter of ethical concern and essential for promoting the mental health and well-being of people across the age spectrum. By challenging our views of aging, we can create a more inclusive and mentally healthy society where people are valued and respected. It is our collective responsibility to create a world where ageism no longer casts a shadow over our ability to thrive as we grow old.

Tracey Gendron, PhD, is chair for the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Gerontology and executive director of the Virginia Center on Aging. She is author of the book, Ageism Unmasked: Exploring Age Bias and How to End It (Steerforth, 2022).

Photo credit: Shutterstock/logoboom



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