6 Myths about Aging

Getting older shouldn’t be something you dread.

When the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, we will all have aged another year. Not a pleasant thought for most of us. Aging presents us with a dilemma: on the one hand, we hate the thought of growing old; on the other hand, few, if any of us, want to die young. We view aging as a disease, yet no one has ever died from having wrinkles or gray hair. And while aging does make us more susceptible to disease, illnesses normally associated with aging can occur apart from aging.

Aging may be inevitable, but poor health doesn’t have to be. “The most important thing is you have to be positive about things. You have to stay physically and mentally active,” says Joseph Parise, DO, a family practice physician in Dover. “If you can do those things and avoid the things you know are harmful—for example, excessive alcohol use and smoking in particular—I think that goes a long way toward giving someone a healthy, long life.”

Here are some of the top misconceptions about aging and what you can do to remain at the top of your game.

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Myth No. 1: Longevity is mostly a matter of genes.
Not exactly. How long we will live and how healthy that life will be is not entirely dependent on our genetic code. Danish research comparing identical and fraternal twins found that only about 20 to 25 percent of longevity is genetic. The remaining 75 to 80 percent is lifestyle choices.

Myth No. 2: Mental and physical deterioration are inevitable.
We can expect to lose a certain amount of function as we age, says Parise, but a healthy lifestyle can do much to prevent—or slow down—the process. Weight lifting helps build and maintain muscle and bone integrity. Aerobic exercise and a well-balanced diet can help lessen the chances of physical and mental decline. Exercising the brain, learning new things and maintaining an active social life can also help ward off cognitive deterioration.

Myth No. 3: Aging kills your libido.
Not true! “I’ll give you an interesting statistic,” says Parise. “One of the biggest increases in the incidence of STDs in the United States in the last several years is in senior citizens.” Impotence and reduced libido are the result of preventable medical conditions like cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and depression. The solution: Keep yourself in shape.

Myth No. 4: We lose intelligence and creativity.
Until recently, neuroscientists believed that the adult brain was incapable of growing new neurons, a process called neurogenesis. But recent research indicates that the brain can indeed generate new cells and that doing so has a range of important benefits, including preventing the mental decline associated with aging. Learning, sex and aerobic activity and adequate sleep all increase neurogenesis.

Myth No. 5: Our brains shrink with age.
What you think—not your chronological age—can cause your brain to atrophy. That’s the word out of Canada’s McGill University. Scientists there have discovered that chronic stress and feelings of low self-worth can physically shrink the hippocampus—the part of the brain that controls memory—by as much as 20 percent. So think positively, unless you want to end up with a brain the size of a pea.

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Myth No. 6: Seniors are cranky and unhappy.
Actually, no. Australian researchers found that life satisfaction follows a predictable trajectory as we age, with the highest levels of happiness reported from ages 15-24 and over 75. Research at Stanford University reports similar results. In addition, data from the Centers for Disease and Prevention reveal that people ages 65 and older were less likely to report any degree of depression than teenagers and young adults. Also, fewer seniors had major depression than their younger cohorts.

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