5 of the Biggest Myths About Aging

Biggest myths about aging

Note: This article first appeared in the Boston Globe as part of Harvard Pilgrim and Studio/B’s Aging Strong series, exploring how individuals from athletes to entrepreneurs have navigated the challenges of aging—and the habits that can help others age strong too.

As a culture, we have ingrained in us some assumptions around what aging will mean for us and our future years. While there are definite transitions that occur in the body and mind as we grow older, it is unfair to assume that our quality or value of life decreases with each passing year. In fact, studies show that aging well is possible when aided by a positive attitude, a sense of independence, a purpose in life, and continued social engagement. The cliché “age is just a number,” though trite, is actually based in reality. Here are some of the biggest myths about aging, and the truth behind them.

Myth: Aging means the end of cognitive development

Many assume that with age, the time to learn new things has come to an end. In truth, cognitive development continues throughout life, and according to a 2014 NIH study, pursuing new interests that stimulate the brain help improve memory. Keeping your mind active and working on learning new skills as you age helps you to build a “cognitive reserve,” which allows the brain to become more adaptable and potentially compensate for any age-related memory challenges in the future. Consider taking up a new hobby, such as learning a new language, gardening, cooking, photography, or even mindful meditation to stimulate your brain and bring joy to your daily routine.

During a recent Mind the Moment session hosted by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Harvard Pilgrim’s mindfulness program manager, Tara Healey, spoke with special guest Dr. Sara Lazar, one of the pioneering researchers in exploring the neuroscience of mindfulness, whose lab is based out of Mass General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Lazar shared insight into how mindfulness could help the aging brain: “We’re actually just finishing up a study now on older adults. There’s been quite a bit of research showing that mindfulness can be useful for promoting cognition. And so one question we were interested in was, ‘Well, can we help slow down normal cognitive decline?’ Because some of our early evidence suggested that mindfulness might help preserve cognition and brain structure and function with aging. We don’t have the answers yet, but it’s looking promising.”

Myth: When you get older, you will inevitably experience dementia or another memory disorder

One of the biggest fears many people have about aging is what they view as inevitable memory loss or disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. “Mild forgetfulness” is to be expected as we age, and occasionally misplacing your keys or mixing up appointments on your calendar does not directly correlate to a memory loss disorder. Continuing to stimulate your brain with new activities as you grow older, however, can help you in your efforts to stay sharp. Pursuing interests like reading, painting, playing games like sudoku or chess, and listening to and playing music can keep the mind active.

Myth: Depression is normal and to be expected in older adults

Many assume that the isolation and loneliness that is often coupled with growing older means that older people will automatically suffer from depression as they age. In reality, studies show that older adults are actually less likely to be depressed than younger adults. Though depression can, of course, occur in senior citizens, they also are likely to benefit from having long-lasting personal relationships, as well as happy memories from throughout life to bring them joy.

Myth: Senior citizens should skip strenuous exercising to avoid injury

With age often comes a decrease in bone density, and thus a fear of over-exertion leading to injury, but physical activity can support both physical and mental health, helping to stave off health problems such as obesity and diabetes and boost serotonin in the brain. Finding exercise routines that work for you and your comfort levels can keep your body and mind in the best shape as the years pass. Whether you take a walk in the park with your children and grandchildren or choose another activity like golfing, swimming, or biking, making exercise a part of your regular routine can improve physical health and keep you feeling independent.

Myth: You don’t need as much sleep as you age

Though older people are likely to go to bed earlier and wake up earlier than their younger counterparts, they still require 7–9 hours of sleep per night, the same as all adults. Following a regular sleep schedule, avoiding naps that throw off that schedule, and avoiding the light emitted from electronics before bed are all part of a strategy to ensure you’re receiving the rest you need.