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United Nations Reports Ageism is a Global Challenge

Every other person in the world is believed to hold ageist attitudes, leading to poorer physical and mental health and reduced quality of life for older persons and costing societies billions of dollars each year, according to a new United Nations report on ageism.

The report released on March 18 by the World Health Organization (WHO) Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs and United Nations Population Fund, calls for urgent action to combat ageism and better measurement and reporting to expose ageism as "an insidious scourge on society."

The response to control the COVID-19 pandemic has unveiled just how widespread ageism is. Both older and younger people have been stereotyped in public discourse and on social media. In some contexts, age has been used as the sole criterion for access to medical care, lifesaving therapies and for physical isolation.

"As countries seek to recover and rebuild from the pandemic, we cannot let age-based stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination limit opportunities to secure the health, well-being and dignity of people everywhere," said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general. "This report outlines the nature and scale of the problem but also offers solutions in the form of evidence-based interventions to end ageism at all stages."

Findings from the Report

Ageism seeps into many institutions and sectors of society, including those providing health and social care, in the workplace, media and the legal system. Healthcare rationing based solely on age is widespread. A systematic review in 2020 showed that in 85% of 149 studies, age determined who received certain medical procedures or treatments.

Both older and younger adults are often disadvantaged in the workplace and access to specialized training and education decline significantly with age. Ageism against younger people manifests across many areas such as employment, health, housing and politics where younger people's voices are often denied or dismissed.

"Ageism towards younger and older people is prevalent, unrecognized, unchallenged and has far-reaching consequences for our economies and societies," said Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, assistant secretary-general for policy coordination and inter-agency affairs in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. "Together, we can prevent this."

Ageism has serious and wide-ranging consequences for people's health and well-being. Among older people, ageism is associated with poorer physical and mental health, increased social isolation and loneliness, greater financial insecurity, decreased quality of life and premature death.

An estimated 6.3 million cases of depression globally are estimated to be attributable to ageism. It intersects and exacerbates other forms of bias and disadvantage including those related to sex, race and disability, leading to a negative impact on people's health and well-being.

"The pandemic has put into stark relief the vulnerabilities of older people, especially those most marginalized, who often face overlapping discrimination and barriers – because they are poor, live with disabilities, are women living alone, or belong to minority groups," said Natalia Kanem, executive director, United Nations Population Fund. "Let's make this crisis a turning point in the way we see, treat and respond to older people, so that together we can build the world of health, well-being and dignity for all ages that we all want."

Ageism costs our societies billions of dollars. In the U.S., a 2020 study showed ageism in the form of negative age stereotypes and self-perceptions led to excess annual costs of $63 billion for the eight most expensive health conditions. This amounts to $1 in every $7 spent on these conditions for all Americans over the age of 60 for one year.

Estimates in Australia suggest that if 5% more people age 55 or older were employed, there would be a positive impact of $48 billion (Australian dollars) on the national economy annually. There are currently limited data and information on the economic costs of ageism and more research is needed to better understand its economic impact, particularly in low and middle-income countries.

"Ageism harms everyone – old and young," said Michelle Bachelet, United Nations high commissioner for human rights. "But often, it is so widespread and accepted – in our attitudes and in policies, laws and institutions – that we do not even recognize its detrimental effect on our dignity and rights. We need to fight ageism head-on, as a deep-rooted human rights violation."

Combatting Ageism

The report notes that policies and laws that address ageism, educational activities that enhance empathy and dispel misconceptions, and intergenerational activities that reduce prejudice all help decrease ageism.

The report encourages all countries and stakeholders to use evidence-based strategies, improve data collection, and research and work together to build a movement to change how we think, feel and act towards age and aging, and to advance progress on the U.N. Decade of Healthy Aging.

About the Report

The Global Report on Ageism compiles the best evidence on the scale, the impact and the determinants of ageism, effective strategies to tackle the problem and recommendations for action to create a world fit for all ages. The report is directed at policymakers, practitioners, researchers, development agencies and members of the private sector and civil society.

• Ageism arises when age is used to categorize and divide people in ways that lead to harm, disadvantage, and injustice. It can take many forms including prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory acts, and institutional policies and practices that perpetuate stereotypical beliefs.

• Prevalence figures based on a survey of 83,034 people in 57 countries found one in every two people held moderately or highly ageist attitudes (i.e. stereotypes and prejudice).

• Ageism leads to excess costs of healthcare three ways: psychological, behavioral and physiological. Psychologically, negative age stereotypes can exacerbate stress; behaviourally, negative self-perceptions of aging predict worse health behavior, such as noncompliance with prescribed medications; physiologically, negative age stereotypes predict detrimental brain changes decades later.

American Ageism

In the U.S., ageism led to excess costs of $63 billion for a broad range of health conditions during one year. The excess healthcare spending due to ageism was derived from the number of Americans age 60 years or older in 2013 and the prevalence of interpersonal and self-directed ageism based on percentage of people that agree to the following statements:

• "You are treated with less courtesy or respect than other people,"

• "Forgetfulness is a natural occurrence just from growing old," and

• "The older I get the more useless I feel."


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