Older Americans Month

An Aging Population Means Challenging Biases

North Carolina's population is becoming older. One challenge for older adults is ageism. Understand what it is and why it's important to overcome this bias.

Author: Divya Venkataganesan, Rebecca Freeman, Swarna Reddy, NC DHHS

May is Older Americans Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of older adults. There’s no denying the population of older Americans is rising in North Carolina, with projections indicating an increase in the proportion of older adults in the coming years. As we note these trends and celebrate older adults, we should also be aware of a common issue members of this population face—ageism.

The Rise of an Aging Population

Today, half of North Carolinians are 40 years old or older. Some were born in North Carolina and grew older while others are new residents to the state – migrating for jobs, to be closer to family, or to retire.

The Baby Boom generation, the cohort of the population born from 1946 through 1964, continue to influence major demographic trends. The first edge of the baby boom generation turned 65 in 2011 and since that time over 100,000 North Carolinians turn 65 every year. In the early part of the 2030s, there will be more people over the age of 65 than there are children. Despite this growing population, ageism remains a pervasive problem. 

10.9 Million people live in NC; Half are 40 or older

Overview of Ageism

Ageism is a form of inequity defined as prejudice and discrimination toward others based on age. Ageism has a negative impact on physical and mental health. It is a widespread and often socially accepted prejudice. Ageism can manifest externally, internally, and unconsciously. It is amplified when other social categorizations such as race, class, and gender are added, creating overlapping systems of disadvantage.

Yet, aging is not defined by mental or physical decline. Older adults are an extremely diverse group of individuals whose worth should not be dismissed.

Older Adults in the Workforce and Our Society

Ageism is a pervasive issue affecting individuals throughout the world. It manifests in various aspects of life, profoundly impacting well-being and society.

In the workplace, a significant number of older adults face discrimination. Studies indicate two-thirds of workers aged 50 and older have witnessed or experienced age-related bias. Research by AARP reveals that about two in three working adults aged 50 and older think older workers face discrimination in the workplace based on age. Among them, nearly all (93%) believe that age discrimination against older workers is common.

AARP's research also indicates that roughly one-third of working older adults report hearing negative comments in the workplace about an older co-worker's age in the last two years. One in six say they have been the recipient of negative comments about their age at work. Over one in ten report having been passed up for a promotion or chance to advance due to their age. These troubling statistics reveal a significant negative impact on the well-being and professional experiences of older adults.

Media contributes to stereotypes of older individuals. A 2021 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that negative descriptions of older adults outnumber positive ones by six times in a 1.1-billion-word US/UK media database. The media significantly influences the societal attitudes of old age, with repeated exposure to media content shaping individuals' perceptions of reality.

Ageism also creates disparities in healthcare. A study featured in the Journal of General Internal Medicine reveals that one in five older adults encounters ageism in healthcare settings. Those who frequently experience ageism in healthcare are at a heightened risk of developing new disabilities or worsening existing ones. Around 27% of doctor's visits and 35% of hospitalizations involve older patients. Negative stereotypes surrounding them weaken the healthcare system's ability to serve a significant portion of its patients (See “How Ageism in Health Care is Affecting Society.”).

These perceptions may deter qualified medical practitioners from joining the workforce, further limiting the healthcare system's capacity to address the aging population’s needs. Experts emphasize the need to spotlight and address ageism within healthcare to ensure the well-being of older individuals.

The Impact of Ageism

According to research, ageism decreases quality of life and can shorten lifespan by 7.5 years. Additionally, ageism adversely affects the mental wellbeing of older adults, increasing the risk of depression, anxiety, and negatively impacting cognitive function. Ageist attitudes contribute to social isolation, reducing participation in social activities and increasing feelings of loneliness, which is linked to numerous health issues and a lower quality of life. 

Taking Action Against Ageism

2023 marked a significant milestone for North Carolina as it observed Ageism Awareness Day for the first time. This recognition underscores Governor Cooper’s commitment to addressing ageism and promoting a culture that values the contributions of people of all ages.

Moving beyond awareness, the Department of Health and Human Services is committed to implementing concrete steps to address ageism. The first step involves the integration of ageism awareness into diversity training, ensuring that staff are equipped with knowledge and sensitivity to combat stereotypes and biases related to age. By incorporating ageism awareness into its organizational culture, DHHS aspires to create an environment where age is celebrated, diversity is embraced, and discussions on age-related issues are encouraged.

A key state-led, cross-sector, multiyear initiative to proactively address ageism is All Ages, All Stages NC. The effort focuses on large scale strategies such as comprehensive financial planning, personal growth opportunities, and community engagement for aging individuals while also emphasizing retirement planning, workforce opportunities, lifelong learning initiatives, leadership development, and intergenerational engagement. This initiative will provide a strategic framework and practical recommendations to ensure individuals of all ages and stages of life can thrive and age gracefully throughout NC.


In conclusion, dismantling ageism requires a shift in our perceptions, moving beyond fabricated limitations of an age group based on stereotypes and misconceptions. Recognizing the individuality of each person is paramount, acknowledging that age does not determine one's capabilities or worth. To combat ageism, it is imperative to promote awareness of healthy aging and provide education on the multifaceted and dynamic aging process. By embracing the diverse experiences and characteristics of older people, we can cultivate a more inclusive and informed perspective and foster a society that values and respects individuals of all ages. 

Learn more about ageism.