As of 2020, the population of those aged 65 years and older was approximately 727 million globally. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) this number is going to double within the next three decades, totalling to 1.5 billion in 2050. An ageing population is not a homogenous group of individuals but rather individuals whose life experiences and the environment in which that have lived may predispose them to both infectious and chronic diseases. For those whose functional ability and capacity is deteriorating both primary integrated care and long-term care as essential component of universal health coverage are essential. It is no surprise then, that the United Nations (UN) has called on governments and civil society to collectively address these challenges and have declared 2021-2030 to be the Decade of Health Ageing.
Of the challenges faced by older persons, an often overlooked yet significant threat to health and well-being is ageism; the stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination faced by people based on age. The UN’s Global Report on Ageism highlights some disturbing findings around the negative impacts of ageism. Key findings of the report suggest that not only are one in two people ageist against older persons but older persons that experience ageism are at higher risk of a shorter lifespan, poorer mental and physical health, and are less likely to recover from disability and cognitive decline.
An article published in Good Times: Canada’s Magazine for Successful Retirement explores the ways in which older adults experience ageism and potential actions that can be taken by society to halt the spread of this form of prejudice and discrimination.
Though ageism presents in many forms, from institutional to interpersonal, the article examines a more severe form known as self-directed ageism. Gail Low, an associate professor at the University of Alberta says, “there’s evidence to suggest that if older people endorse negative beliefs about ageing, they might have longer recoveries from chronic illnesses and higher chances of being hospitalized”.
Internalized ageism can reduce lifespan by 6.5 years, compared with those who feel more positive about ageing. Furthermore, internalized ageism can negatively impact psychological well-being making it harder to overcome challenges. Self-directed ageism is also linked to not engaging in preventive health behaviours such as seeking health screenings or adopting hearing-aids.
Now is the time for collaboration among governments, NGOs, academia, and individuals to identify and prevent ageism in all forms. Steps need to be taken to debunk harmful stereotypes of older persons to ensure a safe space is created for all people. This can be achieved through advocacy campaigns and policies to bring attention and awareness to this growing issue faced by millions of older persons around the world.
To learn more about the impact of ageism please contact Alana Officer, the unit head on of Demographic Change and Healthy Ageing (DHA) at the WHO.
Alana Officer Unit Head, Demographic Change and Healthy Ageing
Alana Officer coordinates the United Nations Decade of Healthy Ageing (2021-2030) & oversees WHO's work on age-friendly environments.