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SECG Blog - Is ageing research ageist?

AAG SECG blog post, October 2019

By Janet Maccora, SECG Comms Group member

PhD candidate, UNSW and Neuroscience Research Australia

Is ageing research ageist?

Ageism is the new “-ism” on the block. Everyone is talking about it. Just this week, ageism was discussed on the ABC’s popular Q&A program and even in Marie Claire magazine. The AAG is championing anti-ageism activists this year, with the wonderful Catherine Barrett as the Glenda Powell travelling fellow (check out her Celebrate Ageing movement) and the inspirational Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks, coming to the AAG conference in November.

But one thing I’ve been wondering is…is ageing research ageist? Although I’d like to think it isn’t, I fear sometimes it might be. For example, when we try to measure subjective age by asking a research participant how old they feel, aren’t we forcing them to make value judgements about feeling old or young?[1] And what about when we use “Successful Ageing” as an outcome, is this not a form of discrimination? Isn’t all ageing successful? Are we to tell the many older people facing the reality of ageing with multiple comorbidities that their ageing is somehow “unsuccessful”?[2]

My intention here is not to blame and shame, especially because I am guilty of both the above myself. Instead, what I would like to do, is to put forward some preliminary suggestions of things we can do to show that we are committed to celebrating ageing.

1.Recognise the heterogeneity in older populations

Assuming that all older people are the same is not only ageist, it’s also unhelpful in ageing research. Our best chance of making real change in the lives of older people will be through understanding that their needs will be different and coming up with innovative solutions that take as much of this diversity into account as possible.

2.Avoid assumptions by asking real people

No matter how much research we do, we’re never the experts on ageing … older people are. Ask representatives of diverse ages, gender, backgrounds and cultures to help you design your research study or intervention.

3.Make research accessible

While we do research “on” older people, let’s not forget that it’s “for” older people too. Let’s make sure older people can see, hear and read our research. When communicating research, use font sizes and contrasting colours for text and background to allow people with visual impairment to read it. Alternatively, offer a spoken version. Use a microphone, hearing loop and/or captions when presenting to people with hearing impairment.

4.Rethink terms like “successful ageing”

Let’s try to find more inclusive ways of describing ageing outcomes, and if we can’t, let’s question the value of these outcomes in the first place, if they are just perpetuating negative stereotypes of ageing.

5.Stop using “old” as negative and “young” as positive

This happens more than we think, even (as fellow SECG member Meg Polacsek pointed out) when we devalue a perfectly good research paper because it’s “old”.

Hopefully these five suggestions are just the start of a conversation that we can have together about how to avoid ageism in ageing research. If you have more ideas, tell us on our Facebook page. We’d love to hear them.



Marie Claire :

Celebrate Ageing:

This Chair Rocks:

SECG Facebook page:


1 Gendron TL, Inker J, Welleford A. “How Old Do You Feel?” The Difficulties and Ethics of Operationalizing Subjective Age. The Gerontologist 2018;58:618–24. doi:10.1093/geront/gnx098

2 Martinson M, Berridge C. Successful Aging and Its Discontents: A Systematic Review of the Social Gerontology Literature. The Gerontologist 2015;55:58–69. doi:10.1093/geront/gnu037

Janet is a Phd candidate a Neuroscience Research Australia (Neura) has a background in epidemiology with an MSc from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Now in the second year of her PhD candidacy, her broad research interest is factors for maintaining cognitive health in later life, with a specific focus on education as a protective factor. Her PhD topic also investigates the phenomenon of “SuperAgers” – people in their 60s who perform as well as, or better than, people 40 years younger than them on cognitive tests. Janet is using data from the Personality and Total Health (PATH) cohort that has been running in the ACT and Queanbeyan for 18 years.

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