We have all been exposed to myriad misconceptions and stereotypes about old age and the aging process. Popular culture often portrays seniors as frail, forgetful, or feeble individuals, while health-related news segments continuously remind us of the age-related ailments and limitations that await us in our senior years. However, the reality of aging is not always so dire. Our golden years can be filled with activity, happiness, and social connection, rather than life-limiting declines in health. By exposing five common myths about aging, we can change how we view the aging process and set ourselves up for a future filled with possibility and optimism.
Myth #1: To be old is to be sick. This myth centers around the belief that aging and disease go hand in hand, and individuals are destined to wind up in the nursing home or suffering from a catastrophic illness once they get older. While the prevalence of chronic diseases does increase as we age, many mature adults are healthy, active, and live their day-to-day lives without any significant functional limitations. Even in advanced old age, there are individuals that attain incredible heights of athleticism and fitness.
Myth #2: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Many people wrongly believe that senility and dementia are a natural, and even inevitable, part of the aging process. However, recent evidence regarding brain plasticity proves that the human mind retains its ability to learn throughout a person’s entire lifespan. In fact, declines in cognition are largely avoidable. There are many lifestyle behaviors—including physical activity levels, dietary choices, alcohol consumption, tobacco usage, and level of mental stimulation—that have been shown to be important factors in the degree of cognitive decline that occurs with advancing age.
Myth #3: The horse is out of the barn. It is often assumed that once an individual is older. it is “too late” to reduce disease risk, increase health status, or become fit. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence to show that this is not true. The physiologic capacity for positive adaptation is not lost even in advanced age. For example, resistance exercise studies conducted on individuals in their 90’s found that skeletal muscle can still grow and become stronger. We now know that it is never too late to positively benefit from an exercise program.
Myth #4: The secret to successful aging is to choose your parents wisely. While genetics can strongly influence disease risk and longevity, their effects are grossly overestimated. There are some specific diseases that have strong hereditary components, such as some forms of cancer or familial hypercholesterolemia, and studies on centenarians show that there is a genetic influence on their longevity. However, the overall evidence is clear that the influence of lifestyle and environment are far more important factors in the determination of health and functional ability than genetics.
Myth #5: Seniors don’t pull their own weight. There seems to be a widespread belief that older adults are a burden to society and do not contribute to its continued success. The assumption is that a person is not pulling their own weight if they are not an active member of the workforce. This could not be further from the truth. Mature adults fill many important roles in society, often in unpaid situations. They represent one of the largest volunteer forces in the country, and many organizations depend heavily on their contributions of time and effort. In addition, they fulfill family responsibilities, such as caring for grandchildren so that parents can continue to work. Plus, the trend of seniors working past typical retirement age is increasing recently.
A recent study found that believing in negative myths about aging can actually have a negative impact on lifespan, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy where seniors accept the diminished life they believe is destined for them. But the study also found that replacing those negative myths with positive views of aging can increase our lifespan and promote a renewed sense of wellness. This serves as a good reminder to us all: we must challenge the myths and misconceptions about aging that we have been exposed to over the years, and focus instead on the wisdom, self-realization, and satisfaction that await us in our golden years.