Top Ten Myths of Aging

March 30, 2011

At whatever age we retire (or even if we never retire), one inevitability is that we will continue to grow older. We will age. There are many myths and stereotypes that depict a negative image of growing older and these can affect our self image and attitude if we buy into them without critical analysis. So let’s briefly examine some of the top myths and stereotypes of aging:

Myth #1: All older adults are the same.

I Iike to say if you have seen one 65 year old, you’ve seen one 65 year old. Given the years of living and the diverse experiences a 65 has had, how can we really expect them all to be the same? Of course one reason for this stereotype is that it makes it easier for others to deal with older adults as a single group: the “old” or the “elderly.” But there are over 34 million people over age 65 today and another 76 million boomers coming along, do we really think they will be a homogenous group? They aren’t now and won’t be as they reach the ranks of “old”: our arbitrary but commonly accepted age 65.

Myth # 2: Most older adults are lonely.

If you ask older adults about two-thirds say they are never or hardly lonely.

Of course we have to be careful here not to generalize because there are a number of factors such as age, health, marital status, living arrangements etc. that can have an impact. However, generally speaking, research has shown that while the number of casual friendships may decline somewhat, the number of close friendships tends to remain about the same. If you had a lot of close friends when you were younger, you will probably have a lot of close friends as you grow older; if you were more comfortable with a small circle of friends, that will probably continue to be true in your senior years.

Myth # 3: Older adults are unable to learn new things or “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.

This is probably one of the most damaging and insidious of the stereotypes because it affects what we expect of older adults and can affect what older adults think they can do themselves.

It has been clearly shown that older adults can continue to learn and do new things as they age. Yes, it may take an older person longer but they are just as able if given enough time and repetition. Also the way they are “trained” or taught to do something new can make a difference. They need to be able to “think things through” to achieve understanding

Lots of older people learn to navigate ATMs, smart phones, PCs, I-Pads, TIVOs, GPSs, digital cameras and the like. They do it by reading the manual rather than by the “trial and error” approach more common to younger people.

Myth # 4: Most older people are depressed.

The National Center for Health Statistics reports that about 5% of the U.S. population over the age of 12 is depressed at any point in time. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that between 1 and 5% of older adults suffer from depression. So the reality is: most older adults are NOT depressed and in fact the frequency of depression on older adults does not vary significantly from the population at large.

Myth # 5: Everyone becomes confused or forgetful if they live long enough.

This is not true. There are plenty of centenarians who are perfectly clear thinkers with fine memories.

It is true that illness and drug interactions, which can create delirium or confusion at any age, seem to have a greater impact on people over the age of 85. However, once the illness has passed or the drug interaction has been corrected the confusion usually dissipates also. The frequency of dementia also increases as we grow older: about 35% of adults over 85 have some degree of dementia. However, dementia is not a normal or inevitable result of the aging process.

Myth # 6: As your body changes with age, so does your personality.

The two (body and personality) are not connected. Your body will change with age. That is inevitable. Your personality – the mix of behavioral, social, emotional traits and characteristics that describe you as a person – may evolve somewhat as you mature, but your essential personality was pretty much formed by the time you graduated from your teenage years. Absent the onset of dementia, if you were a kind, pleasant, happy, gregarious person as a middle-aged adult, you will likely be the same person in your senior years. If you were a grumpy curmudgeon, that’s unlikely to change.

Myth # 7: Suicide is mainly a problem for teenagers.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24. However, older adults are more likely to die by suicide than young people. Of every 100,000 people ages 65 and older, approximately 14 die each year by suicide. That figure is higher than the national average of approximately 11 suicides per 100,000 people in the general population.

Myth # 8: People begin to lose interest in sex around age 55.

The sex drive does decline as we grow older but it starts earlier, as early as age 30 for men, somewhat later for women. The decline is generally slow and gradual. It does not come to a screeching halt with grey hair. More than half of adults in their 60s and 70s are still sexually active as are a quarter of those in their 80s. The challenge for many is usually not lack of interest but the lack of a healthy partner or concerns over body image, performance anxiety or lubrication issues.

Myth # 9: Most older adults live in poverty.

In the early 1960s about one in three older adults lived in poverty. Since then, with the addition of Medicare and programs supporting housing, nutrition and transportation, along with the strengthening of Social Security and protections for private pensions, the living conditions for older adults have improved greatly. Only about one in ten live below the poverty line which is a slightly better result than for the population as a whole.

Myth # 10: Falls and injuries just happen to older adults.

Falls resulting in injury happen at any age. The group that has the least number of falls with injury is people age 25 to 44. Children under the age of 15 and adults between the ages of 65 and 74 fall twice as much as the 25 to 44 year olds. Falls with injury increase in the over age 75 population to about four times the rate of 25-44 year old adults. This means about one in ten adults over the age of 75 experiences a fall with injury each year.

What clearly does increase with age is the likelihood of being injured in a fall. Older bodies have thinner skin, less cushioning and more brittle bones than their younger counterparts and thus are more likely to sustain damage.

It is always helpful to have the facts to help form our opinions and to not let myths and stereotypes cloud our judgments about ourselves or others.

R. Kevin Price

© 2008-2011 R.K. Price