Busting Aging Myths
February 3, 2014 | Found In: Aging
In Western societies, aging is often viewed as a progressive process of loss—of loved ones, senses, memory, flexibility, etc. In Okinawa, Japan, on the other hand, aging is viewed as a rich and meaningful part of life and elders are highly respected. We often take for granted that growing older is indeed a privilege. Here we take a look at some misconceptions about aging with the hope of promoting a more positive, celebratory view:
- Myth: Older people are unhappy.
Fact: Older adults tend to report higher levels of happiness and satisfaction. As we age, we generally exhibit a positivity bias and become more skilled at regulating our emotional health. In addition, as time becomes more finite, we begin to focus on what is most important and meaningful, tailoring our experiences to increase wellbeing, a phenomenon Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen termed “socioemotional selectivity theory”. As we stop “sweating the small stuff” and start cherishing simple pleasures, the frequency and duration of negative emotions decrease. A longitudinal study conducted by Carstensen followed participants aged 18-94 for ten years and found that those in their 70s and early 80s were happiest. Additional studies have replicated these findings.
- Myth: Older people are lonely.
Fact: While social isolation can be an issue for homebound seniors, older adults usually have close contact with family and friends. Many seniors remain active and engaged members of their communities, often with greater social adeptness than their younger counterparts.
- Myth: Aging means that you will have difficulty learning new skills.
Fact: In actuality, older adults tend to have high levels of mental flexibility. The idea of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change structure and function in response to experience, is becoming a more widely accepted concept in the science field. Aging extraordinaire Phyllis Sues became a musician and learned Italian and French in her 70s, took tango and trapeze at 80 and started doing yoga at 85.
- Myth: Aging reduces libido.
Fact: Research has found that sexual activity and enjoyment do not decrease with age. Indeed, a New England Journal of Medicine study surveyed 3,005 men and women about their sex lives. 73 percent of adults between the ages of 57 and 64 said they continue to have sex, as did 53% of adults ages 65 to 74 and 26% of adults ages 75 to 85.
- Myth: Mental and physical deterioration are inevitable.
Fact: According to the New England Centenarian Study, the vast majority of centenarians surveyed were able to live independently well into their 90’s and about 15% have no age-related diseases. While it is true that an individual’s physical and mental faculties can decline with age, implementing healthy lifestyle habits can slow down the process. Lack of exercise, not old age, is often what results in reduced flexibility, muscle mass and bone strength, and achy joints. In addition, dementia and other cognitive conditions are not characteristic of “normal” aging. Just as regular exercise can keep you physically fit (and there are some older adults who are more fit than most young people!), regular mental stimulation can keep you cognitively fit. For example, taking classes on an interesting topic, learning a foreign language or doing activities such as crossword puzzles and Sudoku are great ways to keep your mind sharp.
- Myth: Older adults are less productive and creative than younger people.
Fact: Many older people remain active and productive throughout their lives. Retirement often offers the freedom to develop creative abilities and volunteer in the community. Hal Lasko, now age 98, started using Microsoft Paint at age 82 to create amazingly detailed “portraits,” which he sells to the public.
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