Busting the 5 myths of aging

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published December 9, 2019

Key Takeaways

No one likes getting older—including physicians. Perhaps that’s why myths about getting older persist, even among healthcare workers, despite research showing that old age is not itself a death sentence. Indeed, older age doesn’t automatically mean living with dementia, depression, loneliness, or other illnesses, as the following myth-busters reveal.  

Myth: Most old people have dementia

Dementia is not a normal or inevitable part of aging. Only about 3.6% of US adults aged 65 to 74 years have dementia (including Alzheimer disease, the most common type of dementia), according to recent data. However, the prevalence of dementia does increase with age, affecting 13.6% of those aged 75 to 84 years, and 34.6% of those aged 85 years and older.

True, some cognitive changes are normal with age—such as slower reaction times and reduced problem-solving abilities—but many older adults can outperform middle-aged and younger adults on intelligence tests that draw on accumulated knowledge and experience. Also, many factors related to older age aside from dementia can affect memory and cognition, including prescription drugs, tiredness, stress, depression, and other medical conditions.

Myth: Older age is accompanied by depression

In older age, psychological problems like depression frequently occur with physical illnesses such as stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and hip fracture. Older patients and their caregivers may simply resign themselves to the belief that these feelings are typical, so they don’t seek diagnosis and treatment.

But, age alone is not a risk factor for depression, noted clinical psychologist Simon Tan, PsyD, in Psychology Today. “Most older adults, most of the time, are not depressed. Depression is not a normal part of growing old but rather an illness that needs to be treated,” Dr. Tan wrote.

Myth: It all depends on your telomeres

There’s been a lot of interest lately in the relationship between aging and telomeres. What are telomeres? They’re DNA sequences that cap the ends of human chromosomes. As cells grow and divide, telomeres protect the chromosomes’ integrity during DNA replication. But telomeres shorten as we age and eventually lose their ability to function. Because telomere length is related to cellular aging and because cells in older people have shorter telomeres, researchers think that telomeres are related to the aging process and age-related diseases.

As compelling as the theory of shortened telomeres may be, however, “[a]ging is not caused by one event,” wrote William Mair, PhD, in The Washington Post. Dr. Mair studies the biology of the aging process at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA.

Some of our cells age without shortened telomeres, Dr. Mair pointed out. “Many animals have telomeres much longer than ours, yet they age faster than we do,” he noted. “Shortening telomeres may even be useful, protecting against unchecked cell division, which is a hallmark of cancer.”

Myth: We’re getting older—and sicker

As a trend, human lifespan has been continually increasing. As of 2017, a baby born in the United States is expected to live an average of 78.6 years. Compare that with the average lifespan of 47.3 years in 1900. But while people are living longer, it seems like they’re not living any healthier. In a widely reported study in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers showed that Americans have increased their years living with illness and disability more than they have increased their years living without illness and disability.

But these problems aren’t inevitable. We can change them.

As the researchers themselves pointed out, “The outlook for the future depends on the trends in disability across the age range. It appears that we may have begun to prevent or delay the onset of some diseases as well as their progression to disability, which would be a positive influence. In addition, the obesity epidemic appears to be abating. These very recent trends may be promoting an increase in the length of nondisabled life as well as total life expectancy.”

Myth: Old people don’t have sex

We prefer to think that Grandma and Grandpa are not getting busy in their old age—we prefer to not think about it at all, really. But the “facts of life” are a fact of life, even in the golden years.

“Although frequency of sexual activity may decline in older adulthood, many older adults continue to enjoy a physically and emotionally fulfilling sex life,” according to the American Psychological Association’s Office on Aging. “Like younger adults, older adults who are in good health—and have a willing partner—are more likely to engage in sexual activity.”

Plus, sexual activity offers physical, mental, and emotional benefits that are helpful to seniors, too, such as better sleep, less stress, more positive mood, and improved marital satisfaction.

One more myth—for physicians

Another myth is that, with the aging of Baby Boomers, the field of geriatrics is growing. Unfortunately, it’s not.

“Who will take care of the increasing number of aging, more medically complex and frail people? If you think more geriatricians are being trained to meet the growing number of older patients with multiple chronic illnesses, think again,” wrote Michael D. Cantor, MD, JD, chief medical officer, CareCentrix, Hartford, CT, in an editorial on the New England Journal of Medicine website.

“We need to make it easier and more desirable for doctors to choose careers in geriatrics,” Dr. Cantor wrote. “Older Americans need and deserve geriatricians—today and in the future.”

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