Ageism poses threat to healthy aging

Being told something in a childish tone, not being taken seriously, or getting the feeling that people think you are just a burden to society. These are all examples of "ageism" - stereotyping, prejudices and discrimination towards seniors based on their age. Many seniors fall victim to it, and that number has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research from the UvA Center for Urban Mental Health. Ageism directly affects the quality of life and mental health of seniors. It is time to raise awareness and address this problem, say the researchers.

'Ageism can have a major impact on the physical and mental health of seniors. It can increase loneliness and reduce purpose of life, but also, for example, accelerate cognitive decline or hinder recovery from illness,' says Lotte Brinkhof, PhD candidate at the Center for Urban Mental Health. Brinkhof and her supervisor Prof. Dr. Richard Ridderinkhof, along with their colleagues, investigated whether ageism worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic in the Netherlands, and what the consequences were.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, governments took strict measures to contain the virus and protect the older generation. Brinkhof: ‘Age-based narratives in the news media grew more negative, and older adults were the focus of public and political (online) discussions. Age-related guidelines, such as special early shopping hours for older adults emerged, and many countries - including the Netherlands - even looked at whether seniors could be "isolated”. We were curious about the impact of all this.'

Downward spiral

A total of 500 Dutch adults aged 55 or older participated in the study, which was conducted using the Perceived Ageism Questionnaire developed by the Center for Urban Mental Health. The level of ageism perceived and experienced by the participants became stronger and more negative during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was found to have a negative impact on their quality of life and mental well-being.

Ridderinkhof stresses that it is important to remember that these increases in perceived ageism will not simply disappear now that the pandemic is over. ‘It has increased the pigeonholing of older individuals in our society, and we need to break the downward spiral in order to avoid long-term negative consequences. It is therefore important to raise awareness about the often unrecognized and deeply ingrained ageism at the individual, interpersonal and institutional levels and to educate the public about the far-reaching implications for the physical and mental health of older adults.'

Self-fulfilling prophecy

We are constantly confronted with prejudices and stereotypes about older adults, for example in relation to deterioration and dependence. As a result, such messages become an unnoticed part of our own thinking and we will unconsciously adapt our behavior accordingly. For example, those who strongly associate old age with loneliness have an increased chance of becoming lonely themselves later in life. This is also called a self-fulfilling prophecy: you will behave according to the views that exist in society. By doing so, we limit ourselves in the chance of a long, healthy and happy life.


The researchers developed a Dutch website: They also go out and, for example, had an information stand at the 50PlusBeurs and recently gave a workshop - at the invitation of Stichting Oud geleerd Jong Gedaan - to a group of seniors and students. 'What we then hear back is that it is very eye-opening. People don't seem to be sufficiently aware of the concept of ageism, let alone its consequences,' Brinkhof said.

About the article

Lotte Brinkhof, Jaap Murre, Sanne de Wit, Harm Krugers en Richard Ridderinkhof: ‘Changes in Perceived Ageism during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Impact on Quality of Life and Mental Well-being Among Dutch Adults Aged 55 and Older’, in: Aging and Mental Health (28 April 2023). DOI: 10.1080/13607863.2023.2205832

For a Dutch version of this article click here.