Editorial: Ageing and Ageism

Why is ageism so important and how do we know if we are ageist?

Image: David Brooke Martin - Unsplash

Most of us are ageist and don’t realise it, and our ageist attitudes impact both ourselves and those around us. Curious to know how you rate? Ask yourself the following questions: How old do I think of myself? How comfortable am I telling people my age? Do I try to look younger than my age, why? Am I afraid of ageing and if so, why? (HelpAge International, 2016). Alternatively, try the Harvard Implicit Association Test on Ageing https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html

The Gerontological Society of America defines ageism in a recent publication: “Ageism is discrimination based on negative assumptions about age. Ageism can have a big impact on older people’s lives. It begins with biases that are implicit and unseen, resulting in a tendency to regard older people as debilitated, unworthy of attention and resources, or unsuitable for employment. When older people internalize negative attitudes about aging, their physical and mental health are adversely affected.” (Understanding Ageism and Covid-19, 2020)

We internalise these assumptions, biases, stereotypes and attitudes at a very early age, between four and six years and this is the main reason that we become oblivious to them. They sink below the conscious level which makes them difficult to recognise. They become habits of mind or mental shortcuts that we are unaware of. Perhaps it’s time to consider programs early in the life course to educate and raise awareness around the positive aspects of ageing which is a perfectly natural process. Ageism has been described as a socially tolerated form of discrimination and the “Most commonly experienced form of prejudice and discrimination in the UK” (2011). It has effectively transformed ageing from a natural process into a social problem. And as activist Ashton Applewhite says, “It is ageism, far more than the passage of time, that makes getting older harder for all of us.”

Why is it important? In a nutshell we are all ageing, so everyone will be impacted eventually; populations are ageing globally; we need older people to stay in the workforce; it’s a civil rights issue; attitudes shape policy; and it impacts our health and wellbeing along with our health system.

Our attitudes shape how we age, our expectations of ageing and how we respond to others. It also impacts our identity and self-esteem and can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And in terms of health, it can be a chronic stressor overall with cumulative negative impacts on health at physical, mental, emotional, lifespan and social levels. Researchers have found that how long people want to live is related to a person's positive and negative expectations of what their life will be like in old age (Bowen & Skirbekk, 2016).

Age itself is not as straightforward as one might imagine. There are chronological age and physiological age for a start, and these don’t necessarily align and to make it even more complex, age is a dynamic characteristic, not a static state. Research into subjective age suggests that people tend to report feeling younger than their chronological age and this is associated with a variety of health and wellbeing benefits (Chopik et al 2018). I know that when I’ve asked people how old they think of themselves, most people over 50 have said that they think of themselves as in their 40s. A study by Rubin & Berntsen (2006) found that people over forty feel 20% younger than their chronological age, demographic variables notwithstanding.

The WHO usefully lists ten misconceptions about ageing: 1. There is no typical older person; 2. Diversity in older age is not random; 3. Only a small proportion of older people are care dependent; 4. Population ageing will increase healthcare costs but not by as much as expected; 5. 70 is not yet the new 60; 6. Good health in older age is not just the absence of disease; 7. Families are important but alone cannot provide the care many older people need; 8. Expenditure on older populations is an investment, not a cost; 9. It’s not all about genes; 10. Mandatory retirement ages do not help create jobs for youth (https://www.who.int/ageing/features/misconceptions/en/)

As Richard Leider puts it: “The trouble is, when a number—your age—becomes your identity, you’ve given away your power to choose your future.” Or, “Getting old is like climbing a mountain; you get a little out of breath, but the view is much better!” Ingrid Bergman

In terms of education the 'Ageing' subjects due to run in Term 4 beginning on the 5th October are:

[Source: Lena Gan, Coordinator Ageing Programs, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, The University of Melbourne]


Applewhite, A. (2019). This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. Melville House, UK.

Old School, Clearing House: https://oldschool.info

Bowen, C., Skirbekk, V. (2017). Old age expectiations are related to how long people want to live. Ageing & Society Vol 37 Issue 9. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0144686X16000726

Chopik, W., Bremner, R., Johnson, D., Giasson, H. (2018). Age Differences in Age Perceptions and Developmental Transitions. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00067. Accessed at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00067/full

Rubin, D. and Berntsen, D. 2006. People over forty feel 20% younger than their age: Subjective age across the lifespan. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review volume 13, pages776–780