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Debunking the myths of aging

Reeling in the years
Reeling in the years

According to the Census Bureau, roughly 1 in every 10,000 Americans alive today is 100 years old. But today’s healthy 50-year-old whose family has long-lived relatives enjoys a 1-in-300 chance of seeing a 100th birthday. In addition, whereas life expectancy in 1900 was 47 years, in 2000 it was 72 for men, 77 for women, and rising. Better medical care, improved public health and higher living standards are the reasons.

Everybody wishes time wouldn’t pass so quickly, and for some, fear of aging—and the chance of ending up irritable, unhappy, forgetful or frail—is the reason.

Well, here’s good news. None of us is predestined to become a stereotyped “old-timer.” Why? Because researchers now know that, for the most part, long-held beliefs about aging are actually myths.

What aging is—and isn’t

The idea that we’re fated to experience an inevitable downward health spiral is a major myth. True, the aging process itself is unavoidable. Yet it’s also true that we age at vastly different speeds—much of it under our command. Our medical fate, it turns out, is decided not only by our genes but also by diet, lifestyle and stress. Our later years can be a time of mental growth, spiritual happiness and (within reason) physical renewal. Here are more “I’m old” myths:

  • “Old age means being sick.” In fact, 91 percent of all folks ages 65 to 74 have no disabilities at all. What’s more, three-fourths of people from 75 to 84 years old are disability free. And a mere 4 percent of senior citizens live in nursing homes. Wellness in old age comes from physical and mental strength; having both means staying healthy.
  • “Learning stops at 65.” Although the pace of learning in later years is slower than an 18-year-old’s, the ability to learn doesn’t necessarily fade with age. In fact, many workers change careers upon retirement. They may become computer savvy, learn a language or take up a sport.
  • “It’s too late to get healthy.” By quitting smoking today, in two years your risk of heart disease will be cut by one third. In addition, better nutrition, weight control and exercise are proven ways to reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, hypertension, osteoporosis, diabetes and maybe even Alzheimer’s.
  • “I don’t have the genetics for long life.” Researchers say only 30 percent of aging is gene related. The rest is decided by how we choose to live and where we choose to live—entirely nongenetic factors. For example, staying “connected” with loved ones and friends and keeping active have a major influence on the quality of our later years.
  • “I’m too old for romance.” Intimacy, it turns out, continues at least into our 80s, limited only by our condition and attitude. Moreover, the need for holding and touching persists our entire lives.

Put another way, there’s never been a better time to be an older American. In fact, by maintaining your physical, mental and emotional health, your later years could become your best ones yet!

What aging is—and isn’t