Is life after 50 the beginning of our decline? Many people would like us to believe so. But the narrative that there’s some magical number after which our mental and physical abilities fall of a cliff is pure myth.
Unfortunately many of the negative stereotypes associated with aging are pervasive in movies, TV, and popular culture. But if you just look around, you’ll notice some of the highest performing individuals are well into their senior years. Folks like Warren Buffet, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Paul McCartney, Noam Chomsky, Robert DeNiro, are all going strong well into their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
The misconceptions about aging and older adults is pervasive, we’re here to separate fact from fiction. Here are 9 common myths about aging:
1. Old People Stop Learning
Common thought is that as we age, we stop learning. The truth couldn’t be further from the myth.
New research has shown that while our processing speed may slow as we age, other mental functions like language, vocabulary and speech actually improve as we get older! Moreover, while some brain functions may decline, it doesn’t just disappear and we can do a lot to improve the brain’s performance as we age.
Several studies have revealed exceptional mental feats of older adults. One case study showed someone in his 70’s memorizing all 10,565 lines in Milton’s Paradise lost. Another showed a woman who learned how to read in her 90’s.
If you want to keep your brain young as you age, exercise seems to be essential as it helps promote the elasticity of the brain through the growth of new brain cells and synapse connections. You can also join the growing trend of seniors going back to school and taking classes of interest.
2. Everyone Who Gets Old, Gets Dementia
There’s been a lot of talk about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in recent years. And while it’s true that one person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s every 68 seconds, the good news is it’s not even close to inevitable.
In fact, only 6-8% of adults over the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s. So the vast majority of older adults do not get Alzheimer’s or even symptoms of dementia.
Moreover, we now know that there are several things you yourself can do to delay and reduce, and even avoid the symptoms of dementia. For example exercising, staying mentally fit and eating properly.
So the next time you forget your keys or misplace your wallet, relax. Odds are you were distracted and it has nothing to do with dementia.
3. Age Brings Weakness
Older folks are often seen as frail, weak and fragile. While it’s certainly true that our body mass can get smaller and our bones weaker as we age, it has more to do with inactivity than aging itself.
Marcas Bamman, the director of the University of Alabama’s Center for Exercise Medicine, has said that their research has repeatedly shown that women in their 60’s and 70’s develop muscles that are as large and strong as people in their 40’s, under a supervised weight training program.
While sedentary adults can lose up to 30% of their muscle fibre as they age into their 80’s, the balance of your muscle fibre can more than make up for the loss if you grow them through exercise. Again, aging itself is not the largest factor contributing to elderly frailty, it’s lack of exercise.
The lesson? Keep active throughout your life to maintain your strength. Walking is great, but so are more vigorous activities like swimming, yoga, tai chi, dancing, weight training, etc… Bottom line: Use it or lose it.
4. Older Adults Can’t Adapt to New Technologies
Yes some older people may have asked you for help with BookFace, SnapTime or InstaChat. They may have also asked us to help them download their pictures from the Google, talk to that girl Alexa or find the “blue” tooth in their car.
But before you roll your eyes, think of this. They created, learned, used and migrated from the record, to the 8 track, to the tape to the CD to the MP3 to streaming. From the cinema, to the drive-in, to VHS, Betamax, DVD and streaming. From newsprint to the iPad. And from the dial phone to a smart phone.
Every habit is hard to break. But give the Baby Boomer generation credit for moving on from old habits and embracing the promise of new technologies in all facets of their life to a larger extent than any other generation in history.
5. You Lose Creativity as You Get Older
There’s a lot of misconception around creativity and age. Psychologist Dean Simonton opined that “most conspicuous is the notion that creativity is the prerogative of youth, that aging is synonymous with a decrement in the capacity for generating and accepting innovations.”
But recent research has put that prejudice to bed. Aging alone doesn’t reduce your creativity. In fact, there are plenty of examples of people who created new songs, poems, art, inventions and discoveries well into their adult life.
Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, J.R.R. Tolkein all created some of their most important works after the age of 55.
Even the average age of scientific breakthroughs is increasing, as Bruce Weinberg Professor at Ohio University observed:
“The age at which scientists make important contributions is getting older over time… Today, the average age at which physicists do their Nobel Prize winning work is 48.”
6. You Lose Your Sex Drive as You Age
Nobody likes to picture their parents getting it on, let alone their grandparents. But get this, it’s happening more than EVER!
One study actually showed that sexual frequency declined for every American age group except seniors over the age of 70! Another study revealed that 30% of adults over the age of 70 were having sex at least twice a month.
Why the change in behavior? Well, all those divorcees and widowers can now find love and companionship easier than ever on dating apps, just like the rest of us. Moreover, biological limitations have been overcome with erectile dysfunction medication and lubrication.
So now you can look forward to having more sex when you’re older than you’re having now. Take that father time!
7. Aging Brings Loneliness
We’ve all seen the stereotypical picture of an elderly adult, sitting alone in their rocking chair, staring into space. The image is heartbreaking. Having lost their spouse and friends, they live alone, forgotten.
It’s actually a kind of cliché image. While it certainly happens, it’s not inevitable by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it the norm. The truth is, many seniors have more time to meet new people than they’ve ever had before.
With that new found freedom, older adults discover new pursuits such as cards, dancing, exercise, book clubs, discussion groups, church, volunteerism and classes. Some have their own group of friends, while others meet people at senior centers, the library, the local Y or in retirement communities that have more activities than a summer camp!
8. Growing Old Means Loss of Meaning and Purpose
In our work obsessed culture, where our identities are so often defined by our jobs, we often view retirees as lacking purpose. If you’re not working, you’re not being productive.
But age has nothing to do with someone’s loss of purpose. You can derive meaning and make a difference by being an involved grandparent, volunteering, involving yourself in local or national politics, or performing daily acts of kindness.
Age doesn’t determine meaning, actions do. The actions of Winston Churchill leading his nation through WWII took place during his 70’s. Paul Newman will not only be remembered as a great actor, but also for his charities which he managed into his 80’s. At 94, Jimmy Carter continues his effort to improve the lives of people worldwide through his philanthropy and diplomacy.
Any of those activities can be considered more meaningful and purposeful than many of the jobs we hold as younger adults.
9. Old People Are Depressed
While it is true that older adults suffer from depression, just like all other age groups, the numbers are far from overwhelming. In fact, of those over the age of 60, only 7% suffer from depression. Put another way, 93% of older adults do not suffer from depression.
That said, seniors do have unique challenges (loss of spouses, inability to drive, etc.) which can lead to isolation and loneliness, and increase the risk of depression. However, once again, it’s not an inevitability.
How do you avoid depression in your later years? Maintain a strong network of family and friends. Stay involved in your community. Stay healthy, active and eat well.
Aging isn’t as bad as many thought to be. It’s a process that brings about changes, but not necessarily problems. It’s all about the mindset you have. If you want to stay active as you age, maintain healthy habits and stay involved in your community!
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Featured photo credit: Seth Hays via unsplash.com