New analysis by World Health Organization shows that negative or ageist attitudes towards older people are widespread. They also negatively affect older people’s physical and mental health.

Fully 60% of respondents in the “World Values Survey” analysed by WHO reported that older people are not respected. More than 83,000 people in 57 countries took part in the survey which assessed attitudes to older people across all age groups. The lowest levels of respect were reported in high income countries.

“This analysis confirms that ageism is extremely common. Yet most people are completely unaware of the subconscious stereotypes they hold about older people,” said John Beard, WHO Director of Ageing and Life Course. “Like sexism and racism, changing social norms is possible. It is time to stop defining people by their age. It will result in more prosperous, equitable and healthier societies.”

Ageism and health

Negative attitudes about ageing and older people also have significant consequences for the physical and mental health of older adults. Older people who feel they are a burden perceive their lives to be less valuable, putting them at risk of depression and social isolation. Recently published research shows that older people who hold negative views about their own ageing, do not recover as well from disability and live on average 7.5 years less than people with positive attitudes.

By 2025 the number of people aged 60 and over will double, and by 2050 will reach 2 billion globally, with the vast majority of older people living in low and middle income countries.

“Society will benefit from this ageing population if we all age more healthily,” said Alana Officer, WHO Coordinator of Ageing and Life Course. “But to do that, we must stamp out ageist prejudices.”