Assumptions and myths about aging abound. Not surprisingly for myths, they distort and misconceive how older age will affect us. As we age, it's important to understand and embrace the seemingly endless positive aspects of aging. Research has shown that you can help preserve your health and mobility as you age by adopting or continuing healthy habits and lifestyle choices.
Over the last 200 years, life expectancy at birth has doubled. As animals go, humans perform well in longevity. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Between 2000 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years will double from about 11% to 22%."
But a lot of the things people fear about growing older aren't necessarily true, says Carl Lambert, Jr., MD, a family medicine physician at RUSH University Medical Center in Chicago.
"You do go through changes in your 70s and beyond. But many of the adverse effects of aging that people assume are inevitable are not," he says. "It's about lifelong maintenance. If you adopt healthy habits and stick with them throughout your life, you improve your chances of living longer and being an active senior."
This is not entirely untrue. As we age, our body does experience wear and tear from decades of use. However, physical deterioration does not have to be complete, and people can often slow it down.
As the WHO explain, “Increased physical activity and improving diet can effectively tackle many of the problems frequently associated with old age.” These problems include reduced strength, increased body fat, high blood pressure, and reduced bone density.
Some research suggests that merely expecting physical deterioration increases the likelihood that someone will physically deteriorate.
In one study, scientists surveyed 148 older adults about their aging, lifestyles, and general health expectations.
They concluded that expectations regarding aging “play an important role in the adoption of physically active lifestyles in older adults and may influence health outcomes, such as physical function.”
So, although some deterioration is likely, managing expectations will help individuals make better life choices to maintain physical health and fitness later in life.
An older study investigated how perceptions of aging influenced an individual’s likelihood of seeking medical attention. The authors of the study, which included data from 429 older adults, concluded that, “[H]aving low expectations regarding aging was independently associated with not believing it important to seek health care.”
Another study looked at individual attitudes to aging during late middle-age and how they might influence their overall lifespan. The authors concluded that “older individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging, measured up to 23 years earlier, lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging.”
In short, keeping active, eating right, and maintaining a positive outlook can often slow the physical deterioration associated with older age.
As the above statistics show, severe cognitive decline is not inevitable, regardless of the long-held myth that older adults experience a mental slowing down. And, importantly, there are ways to reduce the risk.
In 2015, the Alzheimer’s Association evaluated the evidence of modifiable risk factors for both dementia and cognitive decline. Their report, presented to the World Dementia Council, explains that “there is sufficient evidence to support the link between several modifiable risk factors and a reduced risk for cognitive decline.”
They identified that maintaining regular physical activity and managing classic cardiovascular risk factors, such as diabetes, obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure were strongly associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline.
They also found good evidence that a healthful diet and lifelong learning or cognitive training also reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
Scientists who study aging stress that chronological age is not the same as biological age — and that the two often diverge as people grow older. It is true that older people tend to decline physically, and the brain also undergoes changes. But in people who are active, experts say, the brain continues to evolve and some brain functions can even improve — a phenomenon experts call the “neuroplasticity of aging.”“This idea that old age is associated with only declines is not true,” said Dr. Dilip Jeste, a psychiatrist who has studied aging at the University of California, San Diego. “There are studies that have been done all over the world which show that in people who keep active physically, socially, mentally and cognitively there is increased connectivity among specific networks, and even new neurons and synapses can form in selected brain regions with older age.”
From The NY Times, President Biden Is Turning 80. Experts Say Age Is More Than a Number. (Nov. 19, 2022)
Contrary to popular opinion, cognitive decline does not necessarily signal the start of dementia.
People who go on to develop dementia tend to experience cognitive decline first. However, not everyone who experiences cognitive decline will develop dementia.
One older study estimated that 22.2% of people in the U.S. aged 71 or older experience cognitive decline. Of these, each year, 11.7%–20% develop dementia.
According to the WHO, the risk of developing dementia increases with age, but it does not affect all older adults. Worldwide, an estimated 5–8% of people over 60 have dementia. That means that 92%–95% of people aged 60 or older do not have dementia.
In the United States, an estimated 14% of people over 71 have dementia, meaning that 86% of people over 71 do not have dementia.
As you age, you may think exercise could do more harm than good, especially if you have a chronic condition. However, this could not be more wrong. According to an article in Neuropsychobiology, keeping active can boost muscle strength, reduce fat, and improve mental health.
Some people think that, once they reach a certain age, there is no point in exercising, as they believe that it will provide no benefit. This is another myth. In one study, researchers put 142 adults aged 60–80 through a 42-week weight-lifting regime.
Often, chronic inactivity is more to blame than age when older people lose the ability to do things on their own. Almost anyone, at any age and with most health conditions, can participate in some type of physical activity. In fact, physical activity may help manage some chronic conditions. Exercise and physical activity are not only great for your mental and physical health, but can help keep you independent as you age. Tai Chi and similar mind and body movement practices have been shown to improve balance and stability in older adults and this can help maintain independence and prevent future falls.
Regular, moderate physical activity keeps your heart and lungs strong and helps you manage stress. And weight-bearing exercises — especially walking — improve both bone health and balance. "Having strong bones and good balance can mean fewer falls," Lambert says. "That's vital, because falls can be devastating for seniors."
There is also good evidence that regular exercise can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. A study, which involved 1,740 older adults, found that regular exercise was “associated with a delay in onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”
The scientists found that the course increased “dynamic muscle strength, muscle size, and functional capacity.”
However, people should consult their doctor before embarking on a new exercise regime if they have a medical condition. Nevertheless, the vast majority of older adults can indulge in some form of physical activity.
The World Health Organization states 25% of your longevity is dependent on genetics, which means the other 75% is dependent on external and environmental factors in your control.
You have the opportunity to impact the way you age by focusing on your environment, your lifestyle and your behavior.
There are incremental micro-steps that you can take in your daily life to reach your goals of successful aging. The key is to break up your bigger goals into smaller goals and to use specific tools and a personalized roadmap that can help you reach your ideal outcome.
While it's true that your metabolism is slower — meaning your body doesn't burn calories as fast as it used to — weight gain in seniors is not a given. They key is to adjust your habits.
Take control: To maintain a healthy weight, focus on the following:
"We should all strive to be healthy, active seniors," Lambert says. "When I see people in their 80s and even 90s out there experiencing new things and enjoying life, it's a wonderful thing."
There are so many amazing people who hit their adventurous and creative prime during their senior years. You likely know of some exemplary seniors in your personal life who are just crushing it as they age, even if you’re not very close to them.
And even if you don’t know of anyone personally, there are numerous famous people out there to serve as amazing inspiration for all of us. Check out this clip on YouTube to learn about more inspiring older adults who blazed their trails. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXulOp7peKM
Aging can make you more adventurous and more creative if you work on living up to your potential. With the right mindset, tools and willingness to try, there are so many habitual changes you can make on a daily basis that can fuel your creative fire and your sense of adventure.
"Unless you have a serious health condition that makes vigorous cardiovascular activity risky, you can enjoy an active sex life at any age," Lambert says.
It's true that some seniors experience physical or emotional issues that affect their ability to have or enjoy sex. But many problems can be addressed to make sex possible, and pleasurable, again.
For instance, over-the-counter lubricants and prescription vaginal estrogen therapy can help with vaginal dryness. There are many treatments for erectile dysfunction and low testosterone in men, and testosterone patches can improve sexual response in women.
Trying different positions can also lessen sexual discomfort caused by arthritis or other age-related conditions. "I know it can be embarrassing to discuss sexual problems with your doctor," Lambert says. "But we're here to listen — and often, our suggestions can help."
Most aging myths seem to focus on inevitability. People believe it's inevitable that our bodies will gradually succumb to time. And, although certain aspects of health might decline with age, few if any are inevitable for everyone. As we know a positive psychological outlook on aging can benefit the physical aspects of aging almost as much as pessimism and negativity can have an adverse effect.