This article was updated to reflect recent research on January 15, 2021.
- Research shows that having a positive outlook on aging is linked to a longer lifespan and increased ability to recover from illness.
- Regular activity as you age can help improve mobility, cognitive ability, sexual health and overall wellbeing.
- It’s never too late to start making healthy choices; any amount of physical, mental or social activity has benefits for older adults.
[4 MIN READ]
Forgetfulness, limited mobility, loss of sex drive—these may sound like the all-too-familiar litany of what plagues older adults. But research on aging has definitively shown that clichés about aging are just that—clichés.
So, let’s focus on the truth and turn aging stereotypes on their heads: Older adults are strong individuals. A life of physical disability, mental decline and isolation is hardly inevitable.
“The most resilient group of people on the planet are older adults,” says Maureen Nash, MD, MS, the medical director at Providence Elderplace PACE Oregon. “They have a lifetime of experience solving problems, overcoming obstacles and getting through challenging situations.”
By staying active, social and positive—and not buying into the myths of aging—older adults can lead a life that’s just as (if not more) fulfilling than that of their younger years.
Mind over matter?
While having a positive attitude is generally a good idea, there’s more to it than that. In fact, combatting 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 an increased ability to recover from illness.
Research shows that having a positive view of aging is linked to a longer lifespan and an increased ability to recover from illness.
If you think you’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 you can scrub away from your 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.
The mistakes of your youth are not a life sentence for pain and immobility. You can reverse many issues with regular exercise or physical therapy.
The good news is that the mistakes of your youth are not a life sentence for pain and immobility. You can reverse many issues with regular exercise or physical therapy. Exercise will keep joints flexible and build the muscle mass that supports joints. Lifting weights will keep bones strong and help retain lean muscle.
“Yes, the best time to start an exercise program was 30 years ago, but the next best time to start is right now,” says Tom Schaaf, MD, MHA, chief medical officer, Providence Home and Community Care. “It’s truly never too late to start, and age is not an excuse to avoid getting in shape.”
There are various exercise programs made for older adults that can help you regain strength, muscle mass and stability. Dr. Schaaf recommends checking out your local YMCA or senior center for programs or talking to your doctor about offerings at your local hospital or clinic.
If you’re not quite ready for an exercise program, Dr. Nash recommends starting with walks, even if it’s just to the end of the street and back. You can build up to longer distances as you get stronger.
“Every single bit of physical activity has benefits and the more you can do the more it will help you,” she says.
Myth #2: Mental decline is inevitable
It turns out that 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.
“All the things that are good for heart health are also good for brain health,” says Dr. Nash. “Eating right, getting moderate exercise and managing chronic health conditions are all key to having a healthy brain.”
Restful, restorative sleep is key for brain health.
“Restful, restorative sleep is key for brain health,” she adds. “Good sleep also directly correlates to having enough energy for moderate exercise, which is important for physical and mental wellbeing.”
“If you’re concerned that you or a family member is suffering from mental decline, don’t hesitate to get it checked out,” Dr. Schaaf says. “There are reversible and treatable things that may be contributing to that 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 is unnecessary and callous. There’s 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 they also enjoy connecting on social media.
Although older adults don’t necessarily want to be isolated, Dr. Nash acknowledges that socializing can become more difficult as you age. Illness, disability or even death can start to limit your social network, so it becomes more important to seek out new friendships.
Social relationships are an essential part of being human, but as you age your social networks become strained and you have fewer natural supports in life.
“Social relationships are an essential part of being human, but as you age your social networks become strained and you have fewer natural supports in life,” Dr. Nash says. “Older adults need to work harder at finding new relationships.”
Plus, social interaction is critical to mental and physical health, Dr. Schaaf adds.
“Older adults who don’t engage with the outside world are more prone to depression, alcoholism and disability,” he says.
If you’re starting to feel like you’re shutting yourself off from the world, reach out to a loved one, family member or neighbor. You may also want to consider looking into community resources, like a senior center, for social opportunities. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations are offering virtual ways to connect.
People of all generations should also make an effort to engage with older adults, Dr. Nash adds.
“One of the most important things family, friends and caregivers can do is reach out and offer friendly support,” she says. “There is no group for whom that is more important than older adults.”
Myth #4: Older people don’t engage with romantic partners
Some may feel uncomfortable talking about it, but it’s no secret that having an active sex life is important as you age. A 2018 study published in the journal Sexual Medicine showed that sexual activity is tied to better overall wellbeing in older adults.
But a healthy sex life also depends on a healthy body. Studies show that being sexually active for seniors depends more on their health, or their partner’s health, than anything else.
“The majority of older adults don’t have difficulty with physically having sex, but for those who develop problems, they should talk with their healthcare provider,” Dr. Nash says. “Many problems older adults have with sex can be addressed and treated.”
It’s important to accept your body changes as you age, but if you’re worried it’s going to be a problem, talk about it.
If having sex is more of a body image issue, Dr. Schaaf recommends having an honest conversation with your partner about how aging will affect your sex life.
“It’s important to accept your body changes as you age, but if you’re worried it’s going to be a problem, talk about it,” Dr. Schaaf says.
Myth #5: If you’re already old, it’s too late to change
If you were a couch potato in your 20s and 30s, your body isn’t written in stone: You can reverse your physical condition when you get older. Even simple weightlifting and walking can dramatically increase muscle strength in your 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond.
“It’s never too late to start,” Dr. Nash says. “Any amount of physical, mental or social activity will bring benefits.”
Quitting smoking is also essential, Dr. Schaaf says.
“Make sure you’re working with your doctor to find healthy ways to quit,” he adds. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been smoking; quitting is one of the most important things you can do for your health.”
Whether it’s a healthy diet or a new exercise routine, a social connection can help you stick to your health goals and hold you accountable.
If you’re looking to make healthy changes, Dr. Schaaf recommends taking these key steps to help you succeed:
- Set aside time and commit – Create a schedule with a time dedicated to your health goals. Block off 30 minutes for a walk three times a week or set aside an hour every Sunday to plan healthy meals for the week.
- Find a friend – Whether it’s a healthy diet or a new exercise routine, a social connection can help you stick to your health goals and hold you accountable. Schedule regular bike rides or walks with neighbors, or find a friend who can check up on how your new diet is going.
- Start low, build slow – Setting reasonable goals and gradually working toward them will help you stick with a plan. As you age, it may take a little longer to reach those goals and that’s OK. Allow yourself time to get into a routine and to build up strength and endurance.
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.
Find a doctor
If you want to avoid these clichés and make healthy changes to your life, reach out to your doctor for help. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory or search for one in your area.
How do you stay healthy as get older? Share your healthy aging tips with us @providence.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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