Age Myth 4: The horse is out of the barn

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What do you really know about aging, and is what you know really true?

Unfortunately, most of what we know is a confusing mix of fact and fiction, of myth and reality.  Some of the common myths are dispelled in the book “Successful Aging” by John W. Rowe, M.D. and Robert L. Kahn, Ph.D., published in 1989.

The book discusses results of extensive studies of aging funded by the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation. An earlier post dealt with Three Common Myths of Aging.

The myth 

After years of bad health habits—like smoking, drinking too much, eating too much, and being physically inactive—the damage is done.

That horse is out of the barn, and it ain’t never comin’ back!

The reality

1.  There’s no question that it’s better to maintain healthy habits throughout your life. But much research shows that it’s almost never too late to change your bad habits. And it’s almost never too late to benefit from those changes.

Example: Smoking increases your risk of lung cancer and other lung diseases, coronary heart disease, stroke, and other illnesses.

But if you stop smoking—within 5 years—you are not much more likely to have heart disease than some one who has never smoked.

And this is true regardless of your age, the number of years you’ve smoked, or how heavy your smoking habit.

Your risk of lung cancer also falls, although much more slowly. “It takes at least fifteen years after quitting for a smoker’s risk of lung cancer to become as low as that of a lifetime nonsmoker.”

2.  Your age may not be the problem. Over the years, bad habits may affect your overall health and level of fitness far more than your age itself. In fact, according to Rowe and Kahn:

[Reductions in physical performance] are often the cumulative result of lifestyle–what we do with our bodies and what we take into them–rather than the result of aging itself.

Years of cigarette smoking, excessive use of alcohol, too little exercise and too much food, especially fats and sugars, do physical damage that is often wrongly attributed to age.

Example 1: The Metabolic Syndrome is a cluster of risk factors that together increase the risk of a heart attack.

The factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglycerides, and “the pot-bellied obesity so common in middle-aged and elderly people (especially men).” 

It turns out that—if you have the Metabolic Syndrome—the increased risk of heart disease is related to your weight, not your age. When your weight goes down and stays down, so does your risk of heart disease.

Example 2: Systolic blood pressure—the first number, as in 140/80— generally increases with age.

This increase is so common in the United States and other prosperous countries, say the authors, that it is often taken for granted and considered the inevitable result of “normal” aging.

But, [they say] in developed countries, not all older people show increases in blood pressure, and…in less-advantaged countries—where people eat less meat, more grains and vegetables, and keep physically active—blood pressure tends not to rise with age.

What does this mean for you?

This is good news. Very good news! It mean that—whatever your age—if you have good health habits now, you should keep doing what you’ve been doing. 

And even if you have some  a few bad health habits, you can change. You can actually become healthier and more active as you grow old. It’s up to you!

Photo by kamshots

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