Common misperceptions can stand in the way of making the best choices as we grow older.
Myth #1: Seniors are Grouchy
Cartoon strips starring curmudgeonly old men, and elderly women whacking miscreant teenagers with their canes…the crabby senior is an archetype with which we are all familiar. It is true that physical pain, depression, sensory impairment, and mobility loss can take a toll on anyone’s mood and outlook on life. But gerontological psychologists tell us that in general, our personality traits remain the same throughout our lives—and many of us even develop a more positive attitude as we age. Laura Carstensen of the Stanford Center for Longevity says, “In general, people get happier as they get older.” Asked about the stereotype of the grumpy old man, Carstensen said, “Most of the grumpy old men out there are grumpy young men who grew old.” Seniors who are experiencing an uncharacteristic negative mood should be evaluated for underlying causes.
Myth #2: Memory Loss is Inevitable as We Age
The idea of the “senile” senior is a pervasive cliché. Any older adult who has gone shopping with a younger relative, only to be ignored by a salesperson, knows that younger people often assume that seniors are incompetent. It is true that Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and other conditions that cause memory loss and cognitive impairment are more common as we grow older, and we do experience certain age-related memory changes. Yet most of us complete our lives fully cognitively intact. Indeed, recent studies suggest that older brains are better at certain tasks that involve discernment and judgment—the qualities more commonly referred to as “wisdom.” It is important to seek medical evaluation for memory problems right away. Many cases of memory loss are treatable—nutritional deficiencies, depression, sleep problems, and medication side effects are common culprits. If the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s or a similar condition, early diagnosis allows for the best care and planning.
Myth #3: Longevity Will Continue to Increase
During the 20th century, the average lifespan in the U.S. lengthened by thirty years! Many people assume that this trend will continue. But studies suggest that the baby boomers will not experience an average increased longevity—and they may even take a step backward. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that the 45- to 64-year-olds of today are more likely to have two or more chronic conditions than their parents. A team led by life expectancy expert S. Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois Chicago predicts a decline in life expectancy within this century, as increased obesity rates lead to increased rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses. A recent survey conducted by the National Council on Aging found that although most seniors and baby boomers expect their lives to improve as they grow older, many are failing to take important steps to preserve their health. This is a reminder for people of every age that wellness doesn’t just happen. We can make lifestyle choices that increase the likelihood that we will enjoy a healthy old age.
Myth #4: Everyone Ages in the Same Way
Today’s emphasis on healthy aging might seem to convey the message that we are in total control of our aging. But no matter how diligent we are about our health, unexpected illnesses, accidents, and even our genes can send us on an unexpected path. There is no cookie-cutter model for how we will age and what our needs will be. On the individual level, this means that we should anticipate that arthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and heart disease may strike even the most health-conscious among us. Learning all we can about the issues of later life allows us to create a flexible plan. National and community senior support organizations confirm that in these times when we are trying to stretch our senior-support dollars, pinpointing the specific needs of individual seniors will bring increased efficiency and promote buy-in for taking charge of our own health.