Hearing This Type of Joke Is Bad for Your Health, New Study Says

One kind of humor could be harming your mental and physical well-being, experts warn.

A great joke can brighten your day, but as anyone who has been the subject of ridicule knows, a bad joke can just as easily ruin it. Experts now warn that besides affecting your mood and your mental health, one particular type of joke can actually be detrimental to your physical health as well. Read on to learn how this one type of joke is impacting a growing group of Americans—and why if it hasn't happened to you yet, it will soon enough.

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Ageism comes in many forms, experts say.

gray hair

With an expanding population of Americans over 65, ageism is a growing issue. "Ageism is a common, socially condoned type of discrimination in the US," explains a Jun. 2022 study published in JAMA Open Network. "Ageism refers to stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination related to old age, aging processes, and older adults."

The study built on prior research which suggests that "major life events rooted in age-based discrimination have been associated with poor health outcomes," and worked to explore "routine ageism" which occurs on a smaller, everyday scale. These include anti-aging commercials, dismissive comments, and other "brief verbal, nonverbal, and environmental indignities that convey hostility, a lack of value, or narrow stereotypes of older adults."

The research team concluded that everyday ageism communicates "that older adults are not fully accepted and respected, appreciated for their individuality, or deserving of the rights and privileges afforded other members of society," and can be detrimental to the well-being of older individuals.

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Ageism is more prevalent than you might realize.

Young team leader correcting offended senior employee working on computer in office
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The study authors collected data from 2,035 adults ages 50 to 80 years to determine how ageism affects their life and health. In particular, they explored 10 forms of everyday ageism, including receiving messages that older adults are unattractive or undesirable, being perceived as less competent due to their age, or viewing physical and mental health problem as an unavoidable part of getting older.

Among that group of over 2,000 seniors, 1,915 of them (93.4 percent) "reported regularly experiencing one or more forms of everyday ageism." The researchers noted that ageism was "experienced at differing levels" depending on sociodemographic factors, and that people between 65 and 80 years old reported encountering more everyday ageism than those between 50 and 64 years old.

Hearing this kind of joke can impact your health.

Happy senior mother drinking coffee with adult daughter indoors at home, talking.

In particular, the study authors found that ageist jokes had a tangible effect on the physical and mental health of seniors. They learned that "everyday ageism," including jokes that disparage one's age, was associated with poor physical and mental health across all four outcomes examined: "fair or poor physical health, number of chronic health conditions, fair or poor mental health, and depressive symptoms."

People who internalized messages of ageism or ageist jokes fared worst in the cohort. "Internalized ageism was the category associated with the greatest increase in risk of poor outcomes for all health measures for depressive symptoms and for chronic health conditions," the study authors wrote.

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Age discrimination is illegal in the workplace.

Portrait of business colleagues in a bright office

Like other forms of discrimination, ageist jokes and comments can have a real-world impact. Sometimes, everyday ageism progresses into age discrimination, which is illegal in the workplace. In fact, a recent AARP survey found that 61 percent of adults over the age of 45 have either experienced or witnessed ageism in the workplace.

The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) prohibits discrimination against workers age 40 and older and offers protection against hiring discrimination, mandatory retirement, cut wages, denial of benefits, and more. Knowing your rights can protect you in a professional setting and help you maintain a healthier outlook about aging—which in turn can benefit your broader health.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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