Loss of strength, loss of mobility, loss of sex drive. These may sound like the all-too-familiar litany of what depletes when you get old, but research on aging has definitively shown that clichés about aging are just that—clichés. When you repeat a cliché often enough, it takes on the sheen of wisdom. Unfortunately, stereotypes about age should have been consigned to the myth bin long ago, because most of them are simply not true.
As any baby boomer will tell you, “age is just a number.” The typical member of the original Youth Generation of the ‘50s and ‘60s has no interest in following old-fashioned ideas of being old, let alone in becoming the stereotypical decrepit figure we see lampooned in cartoons and movies. The next generation of seniors is turning stereotypes of aging on their heads, by taking better care of themselves, by staying active and social—and simply not buying into the myths of aging.
Mind over matter?
While having a positive attitude is generally a good idea, there’s more to it than that. In fact, combating stereotypes of aging may be just as important as fending off disease. Research shows that having a positive view of aging is linked to a longer lifespan and a heightened ability to recover from illness. If people think they'll become disabled and unhappy in old age, there's a greater likelihood that'll become true. The main takeaway here is: Don't just avoid the illness—avoid the myth, too.
Here are five myths that need to scrub away from our attitudes about aging:
Myth #1: Physical disability is inevitable
While arthritis is more common among older people, it isn’t age itself that causes it. It’s the wear and tear on the cartilage between joints and bones that lead to the stiffness and pain of arthritis. In your younger years, arthritis can be prevented by wearing supportive shoes, doing lower-impact exercise and keeping your weight down. As you get older, regular exercise will keep joints flexible and build the muscle mass that supports joints. Lifting weights will keep bones strong and help retain lean muscle. And an anti-inflammatory diet can do wonders for reducing pain and stiffness.
Myth #2: Mental decline is inevitable
Forgetfulness, moodiness or even dementia should not be regarded as just a normal part of getting older but taken seriously as real health conditions. If a family member is becoming forgetful, they should see a doctor to find out if it’s related to medical issues, medication or nutrition. For example, some of the same conditions that lead to heart disease—high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes—may also contribute to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Once the possibility of disease has been eliminated, plan to get moving. To keep the mind sharp, it’s important to exercise regularly—mentally and physically. Aerobic exercise and continuous learning are two pillars of preventing cognitive decline.
Myth #3: Older people don’t engage with the outside world
The cliché of the friendless older man, shut-in and glued to his TV set is both unnecessary and callous: There is no truth to the notion that older people don’t need social interaction, or don’t want to go anywhere. In fact, seniors are among the country’s most avid travelers and social media users. While they may have fewer social contacts as the years go by, this doesn’t mean older people shouldn’t be encouraged to get out and about, meet people and take classes to be part of the greater world. There are numerous community and university resources available for social enrichment, travel, exercise and much more.
Myth #4: Older people don’t engage with romantic partners
While talking about sex with grandpa isn’t usually high on his adult children’s list of comfortable things to do, they should at least be aware that sexual relations are important to older people, too. Studies show that being sexually active for seniors actually depends more on their health, or their partner’s health, than anything else. This is just one more reason why the health challenges of older people shouldn’t be ignored. The National Institutes of Health provides information on changes in sexuality that may occur as people get older.
Myth #5: If you’re already old, it’s too late to change
Even if you were a couch potato in your 20s and 30s, your body isn’t written in stone: You can reverse your poor physical condition when you get older. Weightlifting and brisk walking can dramatically increase muscle strength in your 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond. And it’s never too late to make healthy changes in your diet, lose weight and get better sleep.
Remember, while aging is inevitable, aging poorly isn’t. If you have a real health concern, take steps to avoid it; if it’s a myth, ignore it.
Many health conditions can be avoided by getting regular health screenings. Find a doctor in our list of health care providers here.
Do you have a tip for staying healthy as you get older? Please leave a comment below.