Five Myths of Aging

Five Myths of Aging

As we grow up, we learn to cope successfully with the challenges we face in life. We enter school, we make friends, we prepare for a career, and many of us establish families of our own. It is common to recognize that people do better or worse in coping with these challenges. Is it possible to think of coping with the tasks of later life along the same lines? To do so demands overcoming myths that are very common in our society.

Rowe and Kahn, in their pathbreaking book Successful Aging (1999), identify a number of stereotypes about older people, false beliefs they designate as the Five Myths about Aging.

Myth 1: To Be Old Is To Be Sick

As with other stereotypes, the link between illness and aging is based on a grain of truth. While recent decades have seen great improvement in rates of chronic illness and disability, the risk for developing both conditions does increase with age. But even if they develop functional deficits, most older people are still able to live independently in their own homes until they reach very advanced age. Despite limitations in activity, seniors adapt-for instance, by relying on a cane or walker or by using a hearing aid. (We examine age-adaptive strategies in more detail below).

Myth 2: You Can't Teach An Old Dog New Tricks

Most of us have heard the claim that as years go by people "lose a million neurons every day." It is not true. Neurobiology has shown that the human brain actually retains a high degree of neuroplasticity, the ability to learn new things, even into advanced age (Diamon, 1988). One practical implication is that older people can make changes to improve their lives. For instance, large numbers of adults have quit smoking, even beyond middle age. Epidemiologists now point to data showing how changes in health behavior have delayed disability and diminished the need for long-term care (Manton & Gu, 2001).

Myth 3: The Secret To Successful Aging Is To Choose Your Parents Wisely

There is growing awareness of the role of genetics as an influence on our health. But Rowe and Kahn (1999) point out that genetics are not the only factors determining how we age. The good news is that social and behavioral factors within our control also play an important role in shaping health and well being. As your clients learn more about these facts, lifelong learning and healthy behavior are within their reach.

Myth 4: The Horse Is Out Of The Barn

It's natural to be pessimistic about changing behavior if people believe "it's just too late" to do any good. yet we now understand that adopting healthy lifestyle behaviors can provide a payoff at any age. For example, after a person quits smoking, human lung function begins to approach normal after only a few years, even for those who quit after middle age.

But opportunities for change are not limited to health behavior. It is also entirely possible to make positive changes in saving and spending patterns later in life.

Myth 5: The Elderly Don't Pull Their Own Weight

A stereotypical image of aging is Whistler's mother, sitting on a rocking chair. The reality is quite different. More and more older people are attracted by what is called productive aging, whether by extending years of paid employment or by engaging in productive roles in their families and communities (Bass, 1995; Morrow-Howell, Hinterlong, & Sherraden, 2001). If older people believe they have little to contribute, then they may overlook ways in which their expertise and life experience can be useful to others. As education levels rise and guaranteed pension income becomes more uncertain, we're likely to see more and more older people attracted to productive aging and continued work beyond what was previously the "normal" age of retirement.

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.