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Every year, each one of us adds one more candle to the birthday cake. This additional year brings new experiences and goals. However, how we think about our age and how others perceive that number can impact our health.

Ageism refers to the stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination towards oneself and others based on age. It affects everyone. According to the World Health Organization, children as young as four begin to internalize our culture’s age stereotypes. Ageism has a negative impact on physical and mental health, and reports link it with earlier death. One study found people with a positive outlook on ageing lived a median of seven and a half years longer compared to those who thought negatively.

The thoughts can translate to behaviors. For example, assuming everyone “old” is not as capable, functional or able to participate may lead someone to not heal as well, seek care or involve themselves in physical activity.  Ageism can apply to discrimination against any age, old or young, but most prominently affects older individuals.

Dr. Jan Busby-Whitehead, chief of the Division of Geriatric Medicine and director of the Center for Aging and Health, said it’s not just self-directed ageism that influences our beliefs.

“If, for instance, a family member has a negative stereotype about aging and doesn’t take their elderly loved one to get medical help,” Dr. Busby-Whitehead said. “If they just say, ‘oh, everyone this age has memory loss, everyone this age can’t walk or everyone this age has bladder leakage,’ then the older person may not get the appropriate help they need.  A treatable cause of memory loss is a low Vitamin B12 level, and this can be improved with taking the vitamin either as an injection or as a pill. A problem with walking might be improved with physical therapy. Many causes of bladder leaking are treatable.  So, it is very important that a clinician evaluates any symptoms that affect the older person’s function.”

There are also systematic levels of ageism which include social networks, institutions and cultures. Dr. Busby-Whitehead points to clinical trials as being discriminatory against older adults.

“We don’t have enough information about what treatments are effective for older people because many investigators don’t enroll them in clinical trials,” Dr. Busby-Whitehead said. “They may say, ‘oh, we have covered the elderly population,’ and yet the median age of the study population is around 60. Geriatricians would like to see older people in trials all the way up to age 100 if possible.”

As our society becomes more aware of the impacts of ageism, we can work to combat it through educational projects, policies and intergenerational activities. Studies have shown that people who interact with old adults carry favorable viewpoints about ageing. Dr. Busby-Whitehead can relate this to her personal experience.

“My grandmother who lived with me, and our family since I was born, died at the age of 104,” Dr. Busby-Whitehead said. “She was physically active until she was about 100 years old. She would get up around 5 AM every day to cook breakfast for the family and then she would plant flowers and vegetables, water them and weed the garden. She would do a lot of housework. She also liked to read and memorize poetry. To my mind, that was normal aging. And I thought, ‘why can’t everyone live to be 100 and be that functional?’ And maybe, that’s why I’m a geriatrician because I want to see that wish come true.”

Worldwide, the number of persons aged 80 years or old is expected to triple between 2020 and 2050 to reach 426 million. Ageing does come with change, and someone can’t expect to be in perfect health all their life. However, as our birthday cake becomes full of candles, we can work to expand the quality of life for each year.