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Challenging myths about aging

Challenging Myths About Aging

Al Waller: It appears our world is growing older and sooner than later. To that point, the World Health Organization (WHO) projects that between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world's population over age 60 will nearly double from 12 percent to 22 percent. While aging is inevitable for many, it’s a frightening prospect due in large part to the pervasiveness of ageism, as well as the negative stereotypes linked to aging.

However, many of these perceptions and beliefs about aging are – well, they're simply not true, especially when you take into consideration all the medical research and advances that have been made.

On this episode of ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & WealthSM, we are going to tackle six common myths associated with aging. With us to examine them is Mihaela Vincze, public health expert for nonprofit Transamerica Institute®.

Mihaela, great to have you back!

Mihaela Vincze: Hi, Al. It is great to be here— I look forward to discussing these common myths.

Al Waller: Let’s dive inwith myth #1… Is the expression “age is just a number”true or false?

Mihaela Vincze: It is true. Our chronological age, how old we physically are, can be very different from our biological age, according to a report published in Nature Medicine.

What does this mean? Our biological age takes into account the other factors that affect aging—such as lifestyle habits, which include sleep, exercise, nutrition, stress, tobacco, alcohol, education, and even romantic relationships. You may be considered an older adult based on your chronological age, but your biological age could be much younger, especially if you live a life full of healthy habits.

Al Waller: Well, humor me on this one because I'm thinking about a discussion I had just recently about cars – how you can have an older car with a lot of mileage on it and it looks fantastic – the body and condition of it.

Then you can find some cars that are practically a couple years old, and they look like a beater because they haven't been taken care of. I guess the same thing would apply to humans as well. It is good to know and reassuring that our biological age can actually be younger than how old we tell everyone we are.

This brings me to myth #2 – is physical deterioration inevitable as we grow older?

Mihaela Vincze: This one is somewhat true— as we age, our bodies naturally get some wear and tear. However, people can often slow it down through lifestyle changes, like physical activity and eating healthy.

“Aging well” is also feasible when it’s supported by a positive attitude, which can really impact a person’s will to live and make them more resilient, according to Dr. Becca Levy, Yale University, in her book Breaking the Age Code.

Levy’s research has found that positive self-perceptions of aging can impact our biological age and life expectancy as “older individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging, measured up to 23 years earlier, lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging.”

Longevity may increase through positive self-perceptions of aging, so this notion of physical deterioration as we get older being inevitable, may not be conducive to “aging well”.

Al Waller: Exactly, I suspect a positive perception can have a significant impact on someone's life expectancy. To borrow a title from an old Jefferson Airplane tune, “You're Only as Pretty as you Feel”.

Now, moving on to myth #3— is depression a normal part of growing older?

Mihaela Vincze: No, depression is not a normal part of growing older. However, older adults are at an increased risk of experiencing depression. It is a true and treatable condition that requires medical attention, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But I am also pleased to share some good news, which is that the CDC also found that the majority of older adults are not depressed.

With this being said, young people who experience depression are more likely to experience it again later in life, the National Institute on Aging reports. If you are concerned about a loved one in your life suffering from depression, offer to take them to a health care provider to be evaluated—depression is a treatable condition and help is out there.

Al Waller: Good point there, Mihaela. It’s also encouraging to know that many older adults aren't necessarily predisposed to depression as they age.

Myth #4 relates to physical activity implying that older individuals should avoid it. That just doesn’t sound right to me. Is it?

Mihaela Vincze: No. Exercise is an important part of nearly everyone’s life. This applies to older adults, too. Experts recommend that individuals over 65 should aim to be as active as possible. If you are an older adult, exercise improves lots of different things in our bodies, like our strength, balance, and gives us more energy, according to American Academy of Family Physicians.

It may even improve brain function, and boost your mood.This notion that exercise in older age will result in injury does not line up with the research, according to Chhanda Dutta, PhD, chief of the Clinical Gerontology Branch at the National Institute on Aging.

And to attest to this further, I recently hiked a very tall mountain, and what kept me going was seeing all the older adults around me show such stamina and grace as they climbed—they barely broke a sweat and were in far better shape than me. With this being said, any amount of exercise will benefit you as you age! But of course, always consult your physician before beginning any new exercise regimen.

Al Waller: Great idea there. To your point, I'm fortunate to have had a number of role models who have inspired me in this vein. Two that come to mind are my dad, Al Sr., who as I've relayed previously, played doubles tennis competitively and well – into his 80’s – with guys that were 30-something years younger than him.

This other fellow, Tom, who's a retired judge, I've played golf with from time to time. He has not only managed to shoot at or close to his age fairly regularly but carries his own bag while doing it. I'm not talking about a pull cart. This guy throws a bag on his back and goes out and shoots into the 80s – I'm really jealous.

Now that we've probably seen our older relatives wake up earlier than most of us – seemingly at the crack of dawn – this brings me to the 5th myth. Is it true that we don't need as much sleep as we age?

Mihaela Vincze: No, it’s not true. Older adults tend to sleep earlier, which is why they may wake up earlier— giving off the illusion that they sleep less. However, older adults still need the same amount of sleep as other age groups, around 7 to 9 hours per night, according to the National Institute on Aging. This is especially important to keep in mind as you age because lack of sleep can lead to accidents and forgetfulness. If you are looking for tips to improve your sleep habits, tune in to our episode Getting better sleep for good health.

Al Waller: Thanks for reminding us about that recent episode. I'm pleased to report, by the way, that my sleep quality has really improved ever since. And just a reminder, if you have any topic ideas you’d like to learn more about—let us know at [email protected]!

But thanks to you for that particular episode because I really am doing better, and so is my disposition, which is also a good thing.

Well, Mihaela, we've now arrived at our 6th and final myth and one that’s no laughing matter because its particularly vexing. Are we destined to experience dementia or another memory disorder as we get older?

Mihaela Vincze: This one is quite common and definitely a big reason why so many people fear aging. But this myth is just not true. Dementia is not a consequence of aging, according to the WHO.

The risk of developing dementia increases with age, but it does not affect all older adults. For example, a brief published in the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation in 2019 found that 63% of older adults with dementia were over 80 years old. The researchers found the prevalence of dementia among older adults increased with age, from “2% among adults aged 65-69 to 33% among adults aged 90 and older.”

For most people, the greatest risk factors (aside from aging) for developing dementia include their gender, ethnicity, health conditions, genes, exposure to air pollution, their brain’s ability to cope with disease, and lifestyle habits– according to a fact sheet published in June 2021, by the Alzheimer’s Society in the U.K.

Al Waller: Given these risk factors you've referenced, have you got some suggestions that might help us improve the health of our brain?

Mihaela Vincze: There are some things we can do to help keep our brains healthy. They include eating healthy, not smoking, avoiding alcohol, and exercise. All of these lifestyle factors will support brain health, according to the WHO.

Also, trying new activities like pursuing interests, playing board games, reading, and listening to and playing music can all keep the mind sharp, according to WebMD.

Al Waller: Well, I think most of us would be on board with that line of thinking – I know I am! Mihaela, as always, great to have you with us.

Here's hoping you’ll join us for future episodes on the health benefits of water and ways to spend less money. If you have comments, feedback, or topic ideas, please reach out to [email protected]. And also, don’t miss our recent episodes on how inflation is impacting our finances, strategies to support our mental health, and skin cancer awareness.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about retirement security and the intersections of health and financial well-being. You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s website and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is produced by the Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

Until the next time, I’m your host Al Waller. Stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical, or financial advice or guidance.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.