Does getting older really mean getting sick, debilitated, and unhappy? In this article, we will explore common myths of aging which can result in ageism, as well as the truths about aging that have stood the test of time. We will also explore physiological changes in the body that occur with age.
Myth #1 – Getting Old Means Getting Sick
According to the Administration on Aging (2012), there are 41 million older adults in America aged 65 and older, which represents 13.3% of the population. This number is expected to rise dramatically over the next decades with the “graying of America.” One common myth of aging is that getting old means getting sick. Although many older adults are affected by chronic diseases, less than 5% are frail enough to require skilled nursing services in an institution like a nursing home, and many remain independent and in their homes until death.
Myth #2 – Older Adults Can’t Learn New Things
Another common myth is that older adults are unable to learn new things. The truth is that older adults can and should learn new things to keep their minds active. With aging, information processing speeds decline so learning may happen at a slower rate, but many older adults have the time to learn new skills and hobbies that they never had the time to enjoy in their busy younger years. Older adults’ cognition is relatively stable, unless altered by physical or mental illness and they do not normally experience decrements in intellectual function or changes in personality (Tabloski, 2014).
Myth #3 – Seniors Can’t Learn New Technology
A modern stereotype is that seniors do not want to or cannot learn new technology. The Pew Research Institute reports that internet and social media use is growing among older adults. The research found that social media use among adults over 65 grew from 13% to 26% between 2009 and 2010. Social media allows many older adults who have mobility issues to stay connected with friends and family through photo and video sharing by bringing the world to them. Online shopping can help seniors who may have transportation struggles. A recent study of retired older adults showed that internet use reduced the probability of depression by one third (Cotton et al., 2014).
Myth #4 – Older Adults are a Drain on Society
The idea that older adults do not pull their own weight and are a drain on society is completely untrue. Many older adults spend their time volunteering and staying connected with local clubs and mentoring others. Often, older adults are the ones helping with their grandchildren. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014, 23.6% of older adults (over age 65) give regular volunteer time with at least one non-profit organization. This is only slightly less than the total average for all age groups (25.3%). There are many ways to contribute to society other than paid employment and older adults are invaluable to a healthy society.
Myth #5 – Older Adults Are Not Interested in Sex
Unfortunately our society has labeled the physical changes of aging as unlovely or unsexy and many people believe the myth that older adults have no interest in sex. According to research by Lindeau et al. (2007), 53% of older adults between ages 65-74 were still sexually active, and 26% of those ages 75-85. The need for intimacy, companionship, and human touch as well as sexual desire continues throughout older adulthood. Aging can often present unique barriers to a satisfying sex life for many older adults due to physiological changes such as sex hormone declining, and diseases and medications which can affect sexual functioning. Many older adults do not talk about their concerns with sexuality with their healthcare providers, who may be able to provide advice and resources to assist with the sexual concerns of older adults.
The Truth About Aging
So, what age-related changes can one expect with aging? In general, most body systems slow down, and there are many theories of aging which attempt to explain why the body changes as it does. Some of these theories include error theories which hypothesize that the environmental assaults to the body over time cause things to go wrong. Programmed theories assert that the body’s DNA codes contain instructions for cellular reproduction and death. Psychological theories state the importance of adaptive and coping strategies in order for an older adult to successfully deal with the stressors that often happen in older adulthood.
In the brain, the number of nerve cells declines, but the brain can compensate by creating new connections between the remaining cells. Nerve cells may lose some of their receptors for signals and blood flow to the brain decreases. Blood vessels generally stiffen and are less able to expand when blood pumps from them, which can result in high blood pressure. Skin becomes thinner, dryer, and less elastic. The number of air sacs in the lungs decreases thus slightly less oxygen is absorbed. Loss of muscle mass, termed sarcopenia, begins at age 30 and continues throughout one’s life. Bones become less dense and weaker, making older adults more susceptible to fractures and osteoporosis. Kidneys filter blood less efficiently and material moves through the digestive system more slowly. The eyes are less able to focus on close objects due to the stiffening of the lens. Eyes also produce less fluid making them dryer. Taste buds decrease in number and sensitivity with aging and the ability to smell diminishes. The levels of many hormones including sex hormones decreases, and the cells of the immune system act more slowly.
Despite these changes, older adults are now living longer, and many remain completely independent until death. Older adulthood offers unique opportunities to stay active and contribute in new ways to family and society as older adults are able to accept and adjust to the physical changes they may be experiencing.
Administration on Aging: A profile of older Americans. (2012) Washington D.C. US Department of Health and Human Services.
Cotton, S., Ford, G., Ford, S., & Hale, T. (2014). Internet use and depression among retired older adults in the United States: A longitudinal analysis. The Journal of Gerontology, Retrieved from http://psychsocgerontology.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2014/03/25/geronb.gbu018.full
Lindeau, S.T., Schumm, L.P., Laumann, E.O., Levinson, W., O’Muircheartaigh, C.A. &Waite, L.J. (2007). A study of sexuality and health among older adults in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine, 357, 762-774.
Tabloski, P.A. (2014). Gerontological nursing (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice