Myths and facts about aging

Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D.

Dr. Michael Mantell

Dr. Michael Mantell

SAN DIEGO– There’s a growing sentiment in our population that age is just a number. The new “mantra” is “age be damned.” When a 100 year old man finishes a marathon as happened last year, we know the conventional  conceptions of old age must change.

September 21-27 is International Active Aging Week. This week is devoted to changing the way we think about aging and to encourage folks to stay active, to the fullest extent possible, through all areas of life: physical, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, social, vocational and environmental. Science has shown us that the impact that lifestyle modifications have on disease management and preventive strategies that help us age well reduce the challenges and obstacles associated with growing older.

Aging is summed up in the phrase, “engaged in life.” That means “taking care of ourselves financially, working longer, staying engaged with our families and taking better care of our health,” according to Colin Milner, the CEO of the International Council on Active Aging.

OK, so this article is meant to shed some sensible understanding of aging, dispel a number of common myths and highlight some of the mental health issues related to aging.  By the way, the common definitions of “old,” “older,” or “aged,” refer to people over 65 years of age.  Whew.

Let’s get right to the myths.  Here are 10 common facts on aging as described by a Duke University professor on ageism, E. B. Palmore.  Answer “true” or “false” and see how well you understand aging.  You can find the correct answers at the end of the article.

  1. All five senses tend to decline in old age.
  2. Most older people are set in their ways and are unable to change.
  3. Over 18% of the population of the United States is over 65 years of age.
  4. The majority of older people would like to have some kind of work to do (including housework and volunteer work).
  5. Older persons have more acute (short-term and treatable) illnesses than do persons under 65.
  6. The aged have lower rates of overall criminal victimization than do persons under 65.
  7. In general, older people are pretty much alike.
  8. The majority of older people have dementia, depression or delirium.
  9. Older people often benefit from psychotherapy to the same extent as do individuals under 65.
  10. Physical and mental health care professionals readily identify substance abuse in the elderly.

The Merck Manual of Geriatrics identifies age related physical changes in important areas of our functioning.  From body composition in which we lose lean body mass; to our heart and blood vessels in which our heart size increases and we lose oxygen delivery to our organs; to our kidneys in which we have decrease in blood flow; to our digestive organs in which we have slowed stomach emptying; to our liver which slows drug metabolism; and to our nervous systems in which we have decreased coordination and slowed reflexes with decreased threshold for effects of medicine; and to our endocrine systems in which we have decreased sex hormone production and changes in our thyroid functioning – all of these changes and more have their physical and emotional effects on the lives of not only the aging population, but also on their children and grandchildren.

One of the more common concerns about aging is memory loss or dementia.  In a recent book on aging, Adult Development and Aging, the authors help distinguish between normal and abnormal memory loss among the older population.  For example, forgetting where you left your checkbook is normal memory loss.  Forgetting in which bank you have your checking account is abnormal. Using calendars and lists as aids to memory is a normal part of aging.  Not understanding the nature of a calendar is abnormal.  Repeating a story to a friend that you had previously told them is normal memory loss with aging.  Repeating the same story over and over to the same person on the same day is abnormal.  Forgetting to turn off a boiling pot and burning the pot a couple of times is within the normal range of aging memory loss.  No memory of putting a pot on the stove or of almost burning down the house is worrisome.  Sometimes forgetting where you parked your car at the mall is a normal part of aging memory loss.  Forgetting that you drove to the mall or that you have a car is abnormal memory loss.  Finally, being disoriented for a moment upon waking in a hotel when traveling is normal memory loss amongst the aging population.   Getting lost in your home of many years is abnormal.

From depression to dementia, anxiety disorders to substance abuse, suicide, elder abuse, loneliness, dealing with death and dying – these mental health challenges are causes of concern about the emotional well-being in the aging population.

In addition to psychotherapy, medication, electro-convulsive shock therapy, physical exercise, “Chinese medicine,” pet and plant therapy, social group activity —  and more, the key is to help the aging population retain their good physical and emotional health, dignity, self-respect, self-confidence and overall happiness. Diet, healthy attitude, renewal and exercise are all essential. In the words of Walter Bortz, MD, “It’s never too late to start exercise, and it’s always too soon to stop.”

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, in his wonderful book entitled, Happiness, offers three basic principles to create happiness:

  1. Appreciate and enjoy
  2. Find the positive
  3. Talk and act joyously

It sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Want to help your aging friends, and yourself, retain good physical and emotional well-being?  Follow these three principles, along with excellent medical and psychological care, and aging no longer is a disease, but a time of wondrous insights, connections and satisfaction.

Answers to quiz:  1 – T, 2 – F, 3 – F, 4 – T, 5 – T, 6 – T, 7 – F, 8 – F, 9 – T, 10 -F

Dr Michael Mantell, based in San Diego, is a Senior Fitness Consultant for Behavioral Sciences, American Council on Exercise, best-selling author and international behavior science presenter and keynote speaker.  Mantell may be contacted via [email protected]   


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One Response to “Myths and facts about aging”

  1. carlyt says:

    I recently found the site Retirement And Good Living which has several good pages on aging, health and nutrition. The site provides information on many retirement topics for boomers, retirees and anyone planning for retirement.


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