Ageism isn’t just discriminatory, it’s expensive. A 2019 study published in The Gerontologist put a hard number to the costs. It reported that ageism adds $63 billion a year to healthcare spending in the United States.
The study looked at the eight most expensive healthcare conditions for people 60 and over — cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, musculoskeletal disorders, injuries, diabetes, treatment of smoking, mental disorders, and noncommunicable diseases.
Drawing on research on the impact of ageism, the study compared the healthcare costs of people who experienced higher levels of ageism to those who experienced lower levels to come up with the $63 billion figure.
Researchers also found that the eight health conditions were more prevalent in the group that experienced the most ageism, estimating that more than 17 million cases of these conditions could be attributed to the harmful stereotypes about age.
How ageism crops up in the medical world
“There’s this notion that there’s something wrong with older people,” says James Gruber, a social worker who helped establish the James Gruber Endowed Fund for Aging Education at the University of Cincinnati.
Ageism can take one of three forms: age discrimination, negative stereotypes about older people, and negative self-perceptions in older people about their own aging.
“Ageism can be expressed in healthcare settings in both subtle ways, such as with elderspeak or infantilizing language, or in more blatant ways, such as denying older patients needed healthcare because of their age,” says Becca R. Levy, PhD, professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health and professor of psychology at Yale University and the study’s lead author.
Something like “elderspeak” might not sound like a big deal, but it matters. In another study, researchers found that older people who were spoken to in a patronizing way performed worse on a cognitive test than their peers who were not.
And ingrained beliefs can also affect health outcomes. Another study found that young adults with negative age stereotypes had double the likelihood of cardiovascular events up to 40 years later, compared to those with more positive stereotypes.
Ageism doesn’t always come from the outside, either. The Gerontologist study found that negative self-perceptions of aging were the top driver behind the increased costs.
People with stronger negative self-perceptions of aging agree with statements like, “The older I get the more useless I feel.” This group is more likely to do things like not taking prescription medication as directed.
How to combat ageism in healthcare
To start to end the beliefs and behaviors behind ageism, question your own assumptions about older people. Do you believe they are frail or have memory problems?
While some older people might have physical or cognitive impairments, it’s inaccurate to stereotype all of them based on these assumptions.
And speak up when you see ageist behavior. “I think people of all ages can try to monitor everyday life for examples of ageism,” Levy says. “It is helpful to try to let others know about it. Sometimes people express ageism without being aware of it.”