Understanding self-directed ageism

Normal age-related changes in how we think, perceive and reason may increase the risk of older people viewing themselves through a negative and ageist lens, University of Queensland research suggests.

Cognitive changes make it difficult for older people to challenge internalised ageist beliefs. Image: Adobe

The study led by Professor Julie Henry from UQ’s School of Psychology looked at why self-directed ageism is common.

“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,” Professor Henry said.

“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.”  

Self-directed ageism can present as self-doubt (‘I’m too old to learn this new technology’ or ‘I’m too old to make new friends’) and negative perceptions of one’s own aging (‘I’m so much worse at this than I used to be’).

Self-directed ageism can also present as concern over being judged according to age-based stereotypes (‘If I forget to do this, they’re going to think it’s because I’m old’). 

Professor Henry said when ageism is internalised and becomes self-directed, it has been linked to a shorter lifespan, poorer physical and mental health, slower recovery from disability and cognitive decline.

“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 said.

“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.”

The paper is published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.