University of Queensland research suggests that normal age-related cognitive changes may increase the risk of internalised ageism in older people

Professor Julie Henry from UQ’s School of Psychology led the study because she wanted to understand why self-directed ageism is so common.

Professor Henry explains, “Older people are regularly exposed to ageism such as negative assumptions about their worth, capacity or level of understanding, as well as jokes about older age.”

“At the same time, as we grow older, we rely more strongly on prior knowledge and cues from our environment to guide how we feel, think and behave.

“In a world that devalues ageing, these cognitive changes make it more difficult for older people to challenge internalised ageist beliefs, known as self-directed ageism.”

What is ageism?

Age UK, the country’s leading charity dedicated to helping everyone make the most of later life, defines ageism as “Ageism is discrimination or unfair treatment based on a person’s age.”

The charity adds, “Ageism, also called age discrimination, is when someone treats you unfairly because of your age. It can also include the way that older people are represented in the media, which can have a wider impact on the public’s attitudes.”

happy senior woman enjoying life and summer on the beach. High quality photo
Image: © Yulia Raneva | iStock

What is self-directed ageism?

Self-directed ageism refers to the negative way in which we view our own ageing.

Internalised ageism can manifest in a variety of ways, including:

  • Self-doubt about one’s abilities
  • Worries about judgement based on age-related stereotypes

Perhaps even more worryingly, internalised ageism can negatively impact our health in the following ways:

  • Reduce a person’s lifespan
  • A decline in a person’s physical and mental health
  • Impede recovery from disability
  • Cognitive decline

What can be done to combat self-directed ageism?

“It can also be harmful when older adults allow their negative beliefs about ageing to undermine their confidence to take on new or challenging experiences and opportunities,” Professor Henry explains.

“Interventions, such as creating more opportunities for positive social interactions between younger and older people, are needed to prevent negative views of ageing from developing in the first place.

“Our research also suggests that older adults will benefit directly from a reduction in cues to ageism in our wider social environment.

“If fewer ageist cues attract older people’s attention, the risk of self-directed ageism should be reduced.”


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