Ageism: far more common than many think

Society has come a long way in terms of dealing with many forms of bigotry and prejudice. Progress has been made in acknowledging and changing past prejudices based on race, religion, gender and sexual preference. There’s further progress to be made, of course, but the shift in attitude in recent decades has been almost seismic. But there is one ‘-ism’ that has perhaps flown under the radar during this period – ageism. 

I must admit that ageism is not something that’s been at the forefront of my mind over the years. It’s probably been limited to the semi-regular news stories about calls for mandatory driving tests for older people.

But research shows that it exists in various forms, and can start at an early age. Writing for New Scientist, freelance writer Clem De Pressigny revealed a revelatory moment sparked by her four-year-old son. He had revealed to her his concerns about Christmas presents being forgotten “because Santa is old”.

“At that moment,” Ms De Pressigny wrote, “I realised that he had already picked up negative stereotypes about older people.”

The thing about stereotypes is that they are usually based on at least a grain of truth. The scourge of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia associated with age means some older people do struggle with memory.

But ‘some’ is not ‘all’, and it’s the (often subconscious) ignorance of that fact that can lead to ageism. According to the World Health Organization, one in two people globally are ageist. That’s half of us. 

It seems a very high proportion, but if I think back to my younger days, I’ve been guilty of ageist behaviour myself. Comments to my mum about her forgetfulness and equating that to getting old is an example that springs to mind.

The effect of ageism

My mum was indeed forgetful, but she always had been – probably no more so than most. But when one of those moments came as she got older, it became easy to make it about age. Of course, I would make any such comments in a joking way. I’d say, “Oh, you must be getting old, mum,” with a laugh and a smile.

And mum would laugh along with me. But in hindsight, I’m almost certain she took those comments to heart. Mum did indeed develop dementia later in life. But it was much later in life, and I’m sure those moments of forgetfulness were entirely unrelated.

Ironically and quite tragically, if there was anything that may have caused a decline in mum’s mental health at that time, it was my own ‘joking’ comments. 

Most of us know now that making ‘light-hearted’ comments about someone’s religion or race can be hurtful. Why should those who are the target of ‘jokes’ about age be any different? 

Unsurprisingly, research backs up this notion. But surprisingly – certainly to me – more recent research reveals something else. Those who believe in those negative stereotypes about ageing are more likely to suffer health problems themselves later in life.

Research by Becca Levy at Yale University suggesting this in 2009 has been backed up by later studies. These studies all pointed to those practising ageism as having any of several elevated health risks. These included a much greater chance of having a cardiovascular event, such as stroke or congestive heart failure, decades later.

More recent studies have linked the attitude to a greater likelihood of being hospitalised or becoming obese in later life. The negative attitude also shows a correlation with a lower likelihood of recovering from a disability.

Overcome your prejudices and make everyone healthier

These research findings are classic cases of the old self-fulfilling prophecy. They reinforce the element of truth in the old adage attributed to Henry Ford: “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

This also highlights another concerning potential truth: “If they think you can or they think you can’t, they’re right.”

In other words, comments about an older person’s waning ability – however light-hearted – could indeed negatively affect their ability.

At 59, I’m on the cusp of becoming one of those on the receiving end of these jokes based on ageism. There has been the odd joke from younger members of my family when I forget something. And although I’ve laughed along, it has caused me to question whether the ‘old age slide’ is beginning.

However, I can see now that is not necessarily the case. I may well indeed suffer from dementia at some later stage, but it’s by no means inevitable.

That will be true even if I live to a ripe old age. What percentage of people aged over 90 would you expect to suffer dementia? More than 70 per cent? Over 60 per cent? At least 50 per cent? 

No, the actual figure is about 30 per cent. Less than a third of people aged 90 suffer dementia. And yet, many – myself included – will say something like, “Oh he’s remarkably sharp for his age.”

Unintentional as it may be, this is ageism. And I, along with the rest of society, need to do better.

Have you been a victim of ageism? Or have you intentionally displayed it yourself? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Modify your home for old age

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.


  1. Struck my first taste of Ageism last week at my local Servo – which I have been buying fuel at for 35 years. I have hand braces on due to rupturing tendon in my wrist, so found holding the pump on continuously quite painful. I just asked if there was any way to keep the flow going without holding it up.
    The response was so unhelpful and condescending that I was shocked. Then I realised it was ageism!
    Result. Find a new servo.

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