When President Joe Biden tripped on the stairs up to Air Force One on March 19, the incident immediately touched off a flurry of mockery. Fox News host Sean Hannity declared the President to be “frail.” “He didn’t know where the hell he was,” former President Donald Trump said in an interview with Lara Trump. Saturday Night Live, no stranger to easy jokes about aging Presidents, poked fun both at the fall and at a March 25 press conference when a reporter asked Biden if he planned to run for a second term—a question, quipped SNL’s Michael Che, which was “probably the nicest way to ask him if he plans on being alive in three years.”
Age has long been a powerful political weapon, and Biden has by no means been the sole target. Similar questions have recently been raised about California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who, at 87, is the oldest member of the U.S. Senate, and Wilbur Ross, President Trump’s former Commerce Secretary, who’s now 83. Trump’s campaign tried to make an issue of Biden’s age and mental condition throughout last year’s election—in one case, it spent at least $6.5 million on a 30-second commercial that ran in 12 states and claimed Biden lacked “the strength, the stamina and the mental fortitude to lead this country.” Biden, who’s about four years Trump’s elder, repeatedly brushed off such arguments, telling the New York Times that voters will “make a judgment whether or not you think I have all my cognitive capability, I’m physically capable, and I have the energy to do the job.” Biden himself also engaged in age-based attacks against Trump; his team aired a political ad juxtaposing footage of Biden jogging with a shot of Trump gingerly stepping down a ramp.
Given the awesome power of the presidency, it’s understandable that people may be concerned about a President’s cognitive well-being. But experts say age-based attacks against Biden and others demonstrate how common ageist stereotypes are in American culture—to everyone’s detriment. “Cultural messaging gets internalized, and it can shape the attitudes that people have about their own aging process, and about their awareness of their age related changes when they do happen,” says Shevaun Neupert, a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University.
Attacks on people’s age and mental condition often ignore the reality of growing old in the U.S. today. The average U.S. life expectancy rose from 68.2 in 1950 to 77.8 in 2020, and medical advancements mean that people are not only living longer, but are often at their maximum cognitive capacity deeper into old age. The prevalence of older people with dementia “declined significantly between 2000 and 2012,” a 2017 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found. “Chronological age in and of itself is not a good indicator of what a person is capable of doing,” says Manfred Diehl, a professor studying lifespan developmental psychology at Colorado State University.
But our national attitudes towards older people have not caught up with these developments. In a January 2020 Gallup poll, nearly one in three Americans said they were unwilling to vote for even a “well-qualified” presidential candidate over the age of 70 (of course, Trump won when he was 70 in 2016, and Biden won last year at 77). Ageist political attacks are especially concerning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has “unveiled just how widespread ageism is,” according to a United Nations report published in March. Because older people are more susceptible to severe COVID-19, the pandemic has reinforced prejudiced beliefs that they are universally frail, vulnerable, and a burden on society.
Ageism has obvious consequences for older Americans. Exposure to negative stereotypes can trigger anxiety and reduce peacefulness among older people, according to research from Yale University scholars set to be published soon in the Journal of Gerontology. “The issue is the … accumulation of these small insults over time,” says co-author Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at the Yale School of Public Health. Workplace age discrimination against people 50 and older, meanwhile, led to $850 billion in missed potential U.S. GDP growth in 2018 as older workers retired early, struggled to find jobs or missed out on promotions, according to AARP research.
Less obvious are ageism’s health consequences for younger people. Alison Chasteen, a professor who studies ageism and other forms of stereotyping and prejudice at the University of Toronto, says people who believe that ailments are an unavoidable consequence of aging may not seek out necessary treatments as they grow older and develop medical problems. That, in turn, can make their lives worse for no reason. Consider, Chasteen says, a person who needs a hearing aid but refuses to get one, which could lead to lower cognition and loneliness as they’re cut off from others.
The scientific literature offers many examples of similar dynamics. Young people who believe in ageist stereotypes are significantly more likely to experience cardiovascular events later in life (even after adjusting for factors like family history), according to a 2009 study published in Psychological Science. A 2016 study published in Psychology and Aging found a link between a person’s belief in ageist stereotypes and the development of plaque on the brain, which is associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Last year, a wide-reaching review of similar studies found that ageism “led to significantly worse health outcomes in 95.5% of the studies and 74.% of the 1,159 ageism-health associations examined.”
The key to avoiding these outcomes, experts say, is for people to be mindful of underestimating people based on their age, and instead look for instances in which individual older people defy stereotypes. That Biden is running the world’s most powerful country at 78 years old is perhaps just such an example. The President’s detractors, meanwhile, may also want to remember the likelihood that they too will one day grow old, and will surely want to be treated with respect. “The thing about aging is it is the only stereotype where everyone starts as an outsider. And then as you get older, it becomes self-relevant,” says Neupert. “The messaging that younger people are encountering now about older people, shapes how they will expect their own their own aging to happen, and how they will feel about themselves when they are older.”