It is aserious public health problem that constitutes a barrier to healthy aging and affects 1 in 3 people. This is how experts define ageism, that is, stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination based on age towards other people or towards oneself. All of this has been discussed at the XI Joint Conference of the National Epidemiology Center (CNE) of the Carlos III Health Institute (ISCIII) and the Spanish Society of Epidemiology.
PilarGayoso, Deputy Director General of Cellular Therapy and Regenerative Medicine of the ISCIII; JoãoForjaz, vice president of the Spanish Epidemiology Society; Vânia de la Fuente-Núñez, graduated in Medicine and in Social and Cultural Anthropology and independent consultant on healthy aging; and Carmen Rodríguez Blázquez, CNE-ISCIII researcher.
According to data provided by Dr. Vânia de la Fuente-Núñez, in charge of giving the presentation “Ageism: a Barrier to Healthy Aging and a Public Health Problem”, 1 out of 2 people have ageist attitudes towards the elderly in the world. Using childish language, not letting people who are capable of making decisions for reasons of age, denying access to resources, or ignoring the wishes of individuals just because they are older -or young- are some examples of these kinds of behaviors.
Ageism and health
According to the expert, ageism is considered a public health problem because it affects a large number of people, implies a cost for the health system, harms physical and mental health, generates health inequities, arouses public interest and can be addressed through preventive measures.
Ageism is associated with poorer physical and mental health, greater social isolation and loneliness, greater financial insecurity, lower quality of life, and higher rates of premature death. This is due to, among other things, biases in medical care, including rationing of health resources based on age; the exclusion of older people from clinical trials; and that self-inflicted ageism can lead to adopting behaviors that risk health, such as following unhealthy diets, not taking prescribed medication, consuming alcohol in excess or smoking.
Likewise, it is estimated that more than 6 million cases of depression are attributable to ageism worldwide, and that this phenomenon hinders the participation of older people in society and increases their cognitive deterioration. In addition, the expert recalled that it is a problem that invades all spheres of our lives: from institutions to relationships with others, including the perception one has of oneself. And healthcare is no exception. In this sense, she has mentioned the COVID-19 pandemic, in which action protocols were implemented that excluded older people from basic care or care in Intensive Care Units (ICU).
Regarding the profile of those affected by ageism in old age, Dr. Vânia de la Fuente-Núñez has pointed out that the older and worse the state of health, the more likely they are to suffer from ageism. A risk that also increases if you live in countries with lower life expectancies or if you work in specific sectors such as technology.
The situation is even worse for older people living in countries vulnerable to catastrophes and natural disasters. At present they constitute 12.3% of the population of those territories, but it is estimated that in 2050 they will be 19.2%. This group has the highest mortality rate in the context of emergencies, and only 6% of the funding allocated to humanitarian response is specifically focused on the older population.
Legislation, education and intergenerational interaction: The keys to prevent it
Despite all this, ageism can be prevented. Thus, Vânia de la Fuente-Núñez has ensured that politics and legislation are key, as well as educational activities that help cultivate empathy or the implementation of intergenerational interventions that promote relationships between people of different ages.
However, in order to address ageism in an optimal way, the expert has assured that it is also necessary for professionals in epidemiology and public health to join the fight against ageism to combat it in the same way that it is done with tobacco consumption. “We need epidemiologists and epidemiologists to carry out research studies that allow us to obtain data on the patterns of ageism, the risk factors associated with this phenomenon and the effectiveness of the interventions”, she pointed out.
In this way, it would facilitate decision-making, the development of policies and interventions, and the advancement of public health practices to address ageism at the local and national levels.