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Study links age discrimination to physical and mental health

Age discrimination can have a drastic impact on a person's career, just as allegations of discrimination can drastically impact a company's future moving forward. However, most studies done on this topic focus on the financial impact, the changes to career goals, the impact on reputation, the legalities of the cases and other such topics. They take a very business-oriented focus.

That said, a new study took a groundbreaking approach and opted to look at the potential impacts on a person's physical and mental health. It found that age discrimination -- or just the perceptions of such discrimination -- could be detrimental on both fronts.

The setup

The study involved 7,731 people who were over 50 years old. It asked them if they had been discriminated against based on their age, and just over 25 percent -- 1,943 people -- said that they had. The study took these accounts back in 2010 and 2011, and then it tracked these individuals' health over the following years to see what changes it could note.

The results

The researchers called age discrimination a "social stressor." They said that it could heighten systemic inflammation and lead to the release of cortisol. They claimed that people who faced it were more likely to have:

  • Diabetes
  • Strokes
  • Chronic lung disease
  • Depression
  • Long-term illnesses
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Poor eating habits
  • Smoking addictions
  • Alcohol addictions and/or abuse problems

The last three may qualify as personal choices, but the researchers believed that the stress of age discrimination pushed people to make these unhealthy decisions. Those decisions, then, could lead to some of their health problems -- poor eating habits could lead to obesity and heart disease, for example -- and impact their physical and mental health.

Coping mechanisms

What's more, the researchers felt that people who experienced discrimination tried to cope with it in potentially destructive ways. They may have felt they had no other option.

"These behaviors might emerge as possible coping mechanisms when discrimination is experienced," they wrote. "Food, nicotine, and alcohol activate dopaminergic reward pathways in the brain and could provide short–term relief from the adverse psychological effects of discrimination. Discrimination can also promote intended and unintended unhealthy behaviors – either by acting as a barrier to healthy lifestyle (e.g, people might avoid the gym for fear of discrimination) or by leading people to engage in such behaviors as a means of coping with or escaping the negative affect that discrimination can evoke."

That could also help to explain the onset of depression and other mental disorders. It's clear that the discrimination weighs heavily on those who experience it, if they are willing to avoid certain social situations and take on behaviors that they know are unhealthy or even destructive. To imagine that such stress could also lead to depression and anxiety is certainly not a stretch. The ways that stress impacts the human body are many, and it can look different for everyone.

Have you experienced discrimination?

Do you think that you have experienced age discrimination in the workplace? If so, it's important to know how it can impact your life and what legal options you have.

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