3 Common myths of aging

2475772826_630053d03fWhat do we really know about aging, and is what we 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 gives results of extensive studies of aging funded by the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation which disprove myths  such as these:

Myth 1.  To be old is to be sick

Reality:  Life expectancy in the U.S. has increased dramatically over the past decades. That’s good, but increased longevity could be a mixed blessing. How healthy will we be as we live longer and longer?

As Rowe and Kahn point out, opinions vary. The optimistic view is that the same advances in medicine that allow us to live longer will also reduce disease and disability in old age. The pessimistic view states just the opposite–that as the population becomes older, it will become sicker.

Studies by the MacArthur Foundation confirm the optimistic view. Older people are much more likely to age well than to become decrepit and dependent. In fact, in the 65 to 74 age group, 89%  have no disabilities at all, and relatively few live in nursing homes.

Rowe and Kahn conclude that

…decades of research clearly debunk the myth that to be old in America is to be sick and frail.  Older Americans are generally healthy…The combination of longer life and less illness is adding life to years as well as years to life.

Myth 2.  You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

Reality:  The myth is that along with the body, the mind undergoes decline-and-decay. Old people can’t learn anything new, and they can barely remember what they used to know.

Since both the young and the old themselves tend to believe this, the myth creates a disturbing downward spiral, a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you don’t think you can learn new things, you may stop even trying.

The less hard you try, the less well you perform. The less well you perform, the less hard you try and so on and so on. In reality, older people can and do learn new things, and they learn them well.

The MacArthur research is encouraging. First of all, fears of age-related decline are much exaggerated. Older people become so sensitive to the threat of Alzheimer’s that every time they can’t recall a name or find their keys they panic. But as the authors point out, Alzheimer’s Disease is not a normal, inevitable part of aging.

One thing which is a normal part of aging is some reduction in explicit memory:  that frustrating inability to recall a specific name when you want to. Say, reading about Farah Fawcett makes you think of Charley’s Angels on TV.

OK, there was Farah and Jaclyn Smith, and the other one? What was her name, anyway? Eventually, the name “Kate Jackson” will come to you, but it may take a while. But wait, it gets worse! 

Myth 3.  The light may be on, but the voltage is low

Reality:  This myth hints that not only do physical and mental abilities decline dramatically as people age but also sexual activity.

If old people are interested, they aren’t capable, and if they’re capable, they’re not interested. Again, more fiction that fact.

It’s true that sexual activity tends to decrease in old age, although there are tremendous individual differences. However, it’s also true that as people age, they are having sex a lot more often than many would have guessed. For example, a study published in 2007 in the “New England Journal of Medicine” found that in the 57 to 64 age group, 73% had had sex with a partner in the last year.

This is encouraging but also rather sad because the main factor seemed to be not age—but availability of a partner. Thus older women were less likely to be sexually active because they often outlive their partners,  and—here’s the really unfair part—men their age tend to marry younger women.

Even sadder is that some older adults of both sexes believed that they shouldn’t be having sex at their age. Belief in the myth perpetuates the myth!

All in all, our ideas about aging have long been more myth than reality. The reality is that many old people can be active physically, mentally, socially, and sexually to a very advanced age indeed.

Photo by  hapal

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  • Madeleine Kolb 08/25/2009, 7:55 pm

    Hi Jeff,
    Thanks for the comment. This myth is so damaging, in part because young people tend to believe it which makes them very negative and apprehensive about getting older themselves.

    Your blog sounds interesting, and I’m going to check it out. I’m a big believer in life-long learning.

  • Jeff Cobb 08/24/2009, 5:05 pm

    “If you don’t think you can learn new things, you may stop even trying. The less hard you try, the less well you perform. The less well you perform, the less hard you try and so on and so on.”

    So true. I’ve written about brain “plasticity” before over on Mission to Learn (not an expert at all – just part of my own mission to learn ;-) and the research seems clear that, with a few exceptions, our gray matter can keep growing and changing – in a positive way – throughout life.

    Glad to have found your blog.


  • Madeleine Kolb 07/09/2009, 4:28 pm

    Hi Zoran,
    Thank you so much for the comment and the suggestion! I put this on Digg on Tuesday.


  • Zoran 07/09/2009, 11:43 am

    Super post, Need to mark it on Digg