Let's Go Dispel Some Aging Myths

Let's Go Dispel Some Aging Myths

time icon 8 min read update icon Sept. 16, 2019

Perhaps nothing could better destroy the deeply ingrained societal bias that older people are a frail, powerless, sexless, burdensome lot than the following headline which came across the wires.

America's Top Senior Athletes Redefine Aging at The 1999 National Senior Games - The Senior Olympics Gold Rush Begins

The story went on to say that with a record number of entrants, the 1999 National Senior Games constitute the largest athletic competition in the world.  Registered athletes range from baby boomers to World War II veterans. Twenty-five percent of the participants were in their 50s; 43 percent were in their 60s; 26 percent were in their 70s; and .4 percent are in their 90s. All 50 states were represented, with Florida sending the largest number of registrants (730). Maryland, Texas and California sent delegations of 599, 576 and 562 athletes, respectively. 

This event is entirely in keeping with the surprising results of the most comprehensive scientific study on aging in America conducted by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and reported upon extensively by John W. Rowe, M.D. and Robert L. Kahn, Ph.D. in their book Successful Aging.

Drs. Rowe and Kahn cite six prevalent myths which they characterize as follows:

  • Myth #1     To Be Old is to Be Sick 
  • Myth #2     You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks. 
  • Myth #3     The Horse is Out of the Barn. 
  • Myth #4     The Secret to Successful Aging is to Choose Your Parents Wisely. 
  • Myth #5     The Lights May Be on, But the Voltage is Low. 
  • Myth #6     The Elderly Don't Pull Their Own Weight.

As a society, we are obsessed with the negative rather than the positive aspects of aging.  The truth lies in accepting that scientific evidence clearly points away from these stereotypes.  America must quickly get a grip the new reality in view of the hoards of over 60 baby boomers shortly to descend upon it. As author Theodore Rozak puts it, "The future belongs to maturity."

Here is a synopsis of the evidence from the MacArthur Foundation Study contravening each of the Myths:

To Be Old is to be Sick.

Among its findings, the study establishes that older people are much more likely to age well than to become decrepit and dependent.  In fact, relatively few elderly people live in nursing homes, 5.2% which is down from 6.3% in 1982.  Of those age 65 to 74, fully 89% report no disability whatsoever.

The study concludes that Older Americans are generally healthy.  Even in advanced old age, an overwhelming majority of the elderly population have little functional disability, and the proportion that is disabled is being whittled away over time.  Much of this is due to a huge reduction in acute infectious illnesses in the twentieth century, and more recent decline in precursors to chronic disease such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and smoking.

You Can't Teach and Old Dog New Tricks.

Research shows that older people can, and do, learn new things.  Three key factors predict strong mental function in old age:  (1) regular physical activity; (2) a strong social support system; (3) belief in one's ability to handle what life has to offer.

As we know, older people regularly learn to use appliances and equipment that were unknown in their youth - food processors, microwave ovens, ATMs, even mastering the mysteries of VCR programming.  And now, seniors are embracing computers in unprecedented numbers, discussed in greater detail in the Using the Web materials found on this site.  Among other things, it was discovered that elderly people who have experienced some cognitive decline can, with appropriate training, improve sufficiently to overcome approximately twenty years of memory loss.

The Horse is Out of the Barn.

There is a stereotypical assumption that, if you're older,  its too late to reverse lifelong risky lifestyles and habits such as smoking, drinking, fatty foods and lack of exercise.  The damage has already been done and poor habits are per- manently ingrained.  Debilities related to decades of smoking, excessive alcohol use, eating fatty foods and lack of exercise are often simply chalked up to age.

The truth is that nature is remarkably forgiving.  There is certainly no known potion for youthful rejuvenation.  But scientific research establishes that the greatest anti-aging "potion" is good old fashioned clean living. 

If you're a smoker, it is now well established that the risk of heart disease and stroke in smokers reduces almost as soon as you quit smoking no matter how long you've smoked.  Studies of older people show that threat of high blood pressure can be reduced by changes in diet and exercise and losing weight.

So, the horse can be coaxed back into the barn by physical activity, mental stimulation, changing habits, and continuing emotional support.

The Secret to Successful Aging is to Choose Your Parents Wisely.

Contrary to widespread beliefs, the MacArthur Foundation Study discovered that only about 30% of physical aging can be blamed on one's genes.  Heredity is simply not as powerful influence on aging as is generally assumed.  This conclusion was teased out of a major study of both identical and non-identical twins in Sweden. 

Moreover, it's shown that, as we age, genetic inheritance becomes less of a factor and environment and lifestyle become more important.  How we live and where we live have the most profound impact on organ function, including heart, immune system, lung, bones, brain and kidneys.

Such behaviors as not smoking, good diet, exercise and engagement with life are not inherited.  In short, we are responsible in large part for our own old age.  We can enhance our mental and physical ability as we grow older.

The Lights May Be On, But the Voltage Is Low.

Again, a stereotype pervades that older men and women suffer from inadequate physical and mental abilities.  This assumption finds its most pronounced expression in the general belief that sexual interest and activity in later life is rare and downright inappropriate.

Yes, there is a decrease in sexual activity as we age.  However, there are tremendous individual differences which, in reality, are determined by cultural norms, health, and availability of sexual or romantic partners.  Chronological age is not the most critical factor.

The recent feverish demand for Viagra should dispel the notion that sexual decline is rampant among older people.  Indeed, the 1953 Kinsey Report found that 70 percent of men age 68 were sexually active.  And that was in a more prudish and less healthy era.

The Elderly Don't Pull Their own Weight.

In measuring success, our society simply doesn't count unpaid work.  The assumption is that everyone who works for pay is pulling their own weight. Those who do not are a burden. Unpaid productive activity is not part of the equation for measuring contribution to society.

Yet, in a larger sense, most older people are productive.  One-third work for pay, another third as volunteers in churches, hospitals or charities and another as providing informal aid to family members, friends, and neighbors.

One obstacle is that older people are not given an equal chance for paid employment.  Incorporate downsizings and mergers, the first to go are the older workers, even though it is now illegal to force retirement.  In job seeking, older workers are viewed as posing liabilities.  

Today, millions of older people are ready, willing and able to work. Employers who have stressed the retention and recruitment of older employees find that they meet or exceed expectations, and bring valuable insight and experience to the table.

In Sum

Decades of research clearly debunk the myth that to be old in America is to be sick and frail. Older Americans are generally healthy. Even in advanced old age, an overwhelming majority of the elderly population have little functional disability, and the proportion that is disabled is being whittled away over time. There is increasing momentum toward the emergence of a physically and cognitively fit, nondisabled, active elderly population. The combination of longer life and less illness is adding life to years as well as years to life.

Bob Knechtel - Contributor

Bob is a contributor with Grandfolk® providing in-depth product and service reviews to empower senior buying decisions.