Old Age: Facts, Fiction, and Foresight

Finally, a subject I’m qualified to write about: Old Age! Not that I feel old at age 76, but every time I bump into friends that I haven’t seen for a while, they remark how well and serene I look. Those comments remind me of what mourners say about the dearly departed at a funeral: “My, doesn’t (s)he look good? (S)he looks so peaceful.”

So, I guess I’m qualified to write about the subject. Those of you who have yet to reach the apex of life may be wondering what it feels like to be old. The answer is it doesn’t. Mentally,everything feels the same. We don’t age from the inside, so don’t worry about it. Of course, my body has changed just as the condition of my house has changed, but both body and house remain comfortable to live in, and with a minimum of maintenance, the same should be true for you.

At what age do we become ‘old’? Well, here in the West, people are generally considered so after retirement, which is generally age 65. However, in other parts of the world, the population may experience a decline in health and self-sufficiency at an earlier age. For example, the United Nations recommends that governments in parts of Africa develop programs to help the ‘aged’ from age 50. So, for the purposes of this article, we can consider everyone above 50 as ‘old’. I think all teenagers will agree with this definition. Besides, even in the West, many 50-year-olds think, feel, and act as if they are already worn out and ready to be discarded.

In this article I would like to shed some light on the condition of old age, dispel some myths, and share some thoughts, but the focus will be on exposing many of the commonly held myths. Check out the following list of misconceptions to see if you have been taken in by any of them.

28 Misconceptions about Old Age

1. We will lose our mental faculties. At age 76, I no longer have the physical strength and stamina I had at age 22. But by no means does that imply I am an invalid. Similarly, no doubt my mental acuity has declined somewhat, but it doesn’t impact my life in any noticeable way. It’s like the difference between having 10 million versus 6 million dollars. Either way you’re rich, so why worry?

However, if you are concerned about what the future has in store for you, or just wish to be prudent, why not be proactive? For there are three areas you can work on to significantly increase your odds of keeping your mind sharp well into your 80s, 90s, and beyond.

The three key predictors of sound mental faculties in old age are:

– regular exercise
– a healthy social life
– resilience

So, to protect your mind, develop the habit of regular exercise and physical activity, maintain your circle of friends and master the art of getting along with everyone. Finally, learn how to bounce back from difficulties and how to cope with all of life’s obstacles. These three skillsets are your best defense against mental impairment in old age.

In addition to the above three areas, do the obvious. That is, actively use your mind. Chess, reading, Sudoku, or anything else that stimulates the mind will help you keep it in shape. The adage “Use it or lose it” is a good rule to follow.

Also, don’t be afraid to do some serious studying, for when we stretch our minds, it grows flexible, not feeble. People do not cease learning because they grow old; rather, they grow old because they stop learning.

If you follow the above principles and common sense, you should have no problem remaining mentally sharp even at a very advanced age. The good news is around 80% of ‘senior citizens’ carry out their normal activities without difficulty. And more than 90% do not suffer from dementia. Even after age 85, 66% do not have symptoms of senility. So, you see, although growing older is inevitable, growing old is not.

2. Old Age Is Synonymous with Poor Physical Health. The health of senior citizens is going up, not down. And the way to maintain this trend is by exercising, eating a healthy diet, and adopting a positive attitude. When polled, nearly 70% of seniors stated that they were in good, very good, or excellent health. And more than half of those over 85 had the same opinion.

Old age is more of a state of mind than a physical condition. For this reason, many of those who did grow feeble expected to become so. After all, expectations, whether negative or positive, become self-fulfilling prophecies. That’s why a positive attitude is so important.

Hardening of the heart ages people more quickly than hardening of the arteries. When you fill your heart with love and kindness, you fill you heart with the elixir of life. Life may be short, but it’s long enough to lighten the burdens of others, bring smiles to their faces, as well as experience personal happiness and good health.

3. Joint Pain and Fragile Bones Come with Growing Old. It isn’t one’s age, but failure to exercise that leads to the onset of joint pain. An Australian study of women ages 40 to 67 by Monash University Medical School found that those who exercised at least once every two weeks for 20 minutes or more had more cartilage in their knees, making them less likely to get arthritis.

As far as osteoporosis, a study of women over age 100 found that just 56 percent had it, and their average age at diagnosis was 87. Also, Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. observes, “While getting older is the strongest risk factor for osteoporosis, many elderly individuals never develop the disorder.”

4. Being Overweight in Old Age Will Be Detrimental. For those over 75, being somewhat overweight can have a positive impact. Although a Body Mass Index of 18.5~24.9 is considered a healthy weight and a BMI of 25~29.9 is deemed to be overweight, according to The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, a 50-year ongoing study involving 3,000 seniors, those with a body mass index of 27 outlived everyone else.

Dr. Luigi Ferrucci believes this may be because the body needs a little extra fat to provide sufficient energy to the immune system when it’sfighting off an infection. However, he warned that those who are obese (have a BMI of 30+) still have to work with their health care providers to reduce their weight.

5. We Should Refrain from Exercise in Old Age. Not so, says The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. Even those who take up exercising late in life strengthen their heart, increase blood flow, and lower their resting heart rate. Moreover, those who engaged in high intensity activities, such as swimming and jogging, had a reduction in heart attacks and less shortness of breath and fatigue.

6. We’ll Have Hearing Problems. Although it is common to experience a weakening in our sense of hearing in old age, 65% of 80-year-olds do not need hearing aids, and some still have perfect hearing in their 90s.

7.  We’ll Have Less Friends and Be More Lonely. Not so because as we age, our social skills increase. Or as Dr. Margaret Gatz reports, “As we get older, our social intelligence keeps expanding. We get better at sizing up people, at understanding how relationships work−and at not getting into an argument unless we mean to.”

A University of Michigan study suggests that friends are more important than wealth and health. Of what value is health and wealth if you are lonely?  On the other hand, even if you’re impoverished and in poor health, life can remain enjoyable if you have friends to look forward to meeting.  This is another reason for fostering a positive attitude, for a cheery disposition attracts friends, while a gloomy outlook alienates them. Old age may be the declining years, but don’t use them to decline friendship, fun, and festivity.

8. After Our Children Leave, We’ll Be Lonely. The so called Empty Nest Syndromeis a myth because husbands and wives discover the pleasure of privacy and intimacy that is available after the children leave. The time that was spent on the children now becomes available to spend with each other. When polled, just 12% of seniorssaid loneliness was a problem.

9. Seniors Are Usually Complaining And Unhappy. According to a Heidelberg, Germany study of 40 centenarians:

Nearly 70% said they laughed often
71% were happy despite any physical or mental problems
More than 50% said they were as happy as they were when much younger
When compared to a middle-age group, researchers found both equally happy
Finally, consider this comment by Stephen Richards, “When we age we shed many skins: ego, arrogance, dominance, self-opinionated, unreliable, pessimism, rudeness, selfish, uncaring … Wow, it’s good to be old!”

10. Old people get depressed. Here are the facts:

Most seniors are not depressed. Depression is not the norm for old age.
But if they do get depressed, they can be treated just as successfully as younger people.
The small group of seniors that live with chronic illness and pain may develop co-morbid depression. That is, depression may coexist with and because of another illness. Illnesses that are often associated with co-morbid depression include: cancer; heart disease; stroke; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); diabetes; epilepsy; Parkinson’s disease; anxiety; drug and alcohol problems.

11. The Elderly Feel Old. Interestingly, the opposite is true. As we age, the gap between our chronological age and ‘felt age’ grows wider. In a 2009 Pew Research Survey, nearly 50% of respondents 50 and older claimed they felt 10 to 19 years younger than their chronological age.

Other than for changes in our physical appearance, becoming a senior citizen feels no different from how we feel right now or how we felt when we were younger. Reworded, a senior is just a young person who has lived longer.

12.Old Age Destroys Our Sexual Desire. Here are the facts:
In a national survey of men and a women 75~85 years old, 75% of men and 50% of women stated they were still interested in sex and continue to be sexually active. Typically, our libido doesn’t wane until age 75. And seniors may change the way they express sexual intimacy from intercourse to embracing, kissing, touching, holding hands, and hugging. Investigators have found that good health, not age, is the key to lifelong sexual relationships. Common reasons for a low sex drive include high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and depression. The answer is to keep in shape. Merely lifting weights a few times a week maybe enough to improve one’s sex life.

13. Our Brain Stops Developing after Childhood. The idea of a static brain has been dispelled since the 1990s. It is now recognized that our brain is highly flexible, for besides storing data, it can optimize it and move it to different areas of the brain when necessary, such as after a stroke. This power of the brain is referred to as neuroplasticity.

The points are that we are never too old to learn and the brain is like a muscle in that the more we use it the more we can depend on it to faithfully serve us.

14. Our Brain Shrinks in Old Age. This is a myth that started in 2002 because of studies that appeared to show that the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory, was smaller in seniors.

This myth began with studies in 2002 showing that the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory, was significantly smaller in older people than in younger people. This never sounded right to Dr. Lupien, particularly after she conducted groundbreaking research in the late 1990s showing that chronic stress shrinks the hippocampus.

However, Dr. Sonia Lupien* demonstrated that it was not old age, but stress that caused the hippocampus to shrink. When she studied the brain scans of 177 people ages 18~85, she found that 25% of the 18 to 24-year-olds had hippocampus sizes as small as those of 60 to 75-year-olds.
*Dr. Sonia Lupien is the founder and director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress. She is a full professor in the department of psychiatry in the faculty of medicine at the Université du Québec à Montréal. In 2002, she received Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 Award, and in 2003 Dr. Lupien was voted one of the Top 10 Canadians Who Make a Difference by Maclean’s magazine.

15. Our Genes Determine How We’ll Age. Lifestyle is more important than genetics. For example, my dad, who was a smoker and fond of eating steaks, had several heart attacks, the first of which was in his 50’s. The fact that I gave up smoking at a much earlier age than my father and eat far less meat probably explains why I remain in good health. So, don’t worry about your genes as much as you do about the size of your jeans. Remain fit and enjoy life.

16. We Lose Our Creativity As We Age. People are creative not because of a particular age, but because of the decisions they make. They decide to invest time in the arts. Whether you get involved in painting, photography, writing, poetry, music, public speaking, or performing, they all pay big dividends.

For example, according to a George Washington University study, seniors who joined a choir were healthier, had less need for medication, and experienced fewer falls than those who didn’t join.

The choir members also said they were less lonely, were more positive, and joined in more activities than the non-singing group, who actually cut back on the number of activities they were engaged in during the year.

17. It’s too Late to Make Changes during Old Age. The truth is we can always benefit from healthy living. A change in lifestyle can not only regain much lost function and lower risk, but may, at times, even increase our capabilities beyond our previous level.

Judith Horstman adds, “Starting an exercise regimen later in life can pay off in brain benefits even when some cognitive decline has already set in.” So, positive lifestyle changes made at any age can still have an impact on health.

18. When We’re Old, It’s too Late to Do Anything of Value. John Glenn might have been 40 when he first orbited the earth, but at age 77 he was back in space. Being significant should never end, other than by our death. Of course we cannot all orbit the earth, but we can all adopt the attitude of never stopping to make a difference in some way.

In 1939, on his 95th birthday, Sir William Mulock had this to say, “I am still at work, with my hand to the plow and my face to the future. The shadows of evening lengthen about me, but it is still morning in my heart. I have lived from the forties of one century into the thirties of the next. I have had varied fields of labor, and full contact with men and things, and have warmed both hands before the fire of life. The testimony I bear is this: that the Castle of my Dreams is not yet behind me. It is before me still and daily I catch glimpses of its battlements and towers. The rich spoils of memory are mine … the precious things, books, flowers, pictures, nature, friends, faith in God. But for me, the challenge of life is always further on.” And on his 100th birthday, he had this to add, “I’m not in the habit of looking back – I leave that till I get old.”

19. Old People Are Stuck in Their Ways. Some people believe that seniors cannot keep up with technology and are resistant to change. However, already 50% of North American seniors are now on line.

Regarding flexibility or coping skills, one’s ability to deal with change is not linked to one’s age, for one can be flexible or inflexible at any age. If anything, seniors may be more resilient because many have had to deal with retirement, death, and illness.

Although seniors may be slower to change their opinion, research indicates that most are open to change throughout their lives.

20.  Seniors Lack Control over Their Lives. The conclusion of a 60-year study of more than 500 people was that “One may have greater personal control over one’s biopsychosocial health after retirement than previously recognized.” The study, which appeared in the American Journal of Psychiatry, indicated there are the following seven factors that lead to ‘successful’ (trouble-free) aging.

alcohol use
whether or not one smokes
marital stability
body mass index
coping mechanisms

And because we have control over these seven factors, we also have control over how successfully we will deal with old age.

21. Seniors Prefer to Be Left Alone. Seniors are not grumpy men and women seeking peace and quiet. Rather, they enjoy company, companionship, and entertainment as much as any other age group. The popularity of community centers, social clubs, senior dance halls, group bus tours, adult education classes, and recreational facilities attest to this fact.

22. Old People Are All Alike. Old people are as different from one another as young people are. Regardless of our age, we all have unique personalities and our own set of beliefs.

23. Old People Have Special Needs. People who are sick need medical attention, but this is true for all age groups. People of all ages share a common humanity and common needs. For instance, we all need to be treated with respect, recognized, accepted, and encouraged. Summing up, human needs do not change as we grow old.

24. The Elderly Don’t Contribute to Society. The truth is 33% of the elderly continue working after age 65, and another 33% work as volunteers, providing many valuable services. Furthermore, many scholars, scientists, and politicians are in their 80s and 90s.

25. Older Employees Are Less Productive than Younger Ones. The facts are:

They have low rates of absenteeism
They are flexible regarding work schedules
They make excellent mentors for younger workers
Older workers have been found to be highly motivated
Almost 50% of all American businesses employ retired workers
Drawing on years of experience, older employees produce high quality work

26.  Seniors Are More Likely to Become Victims of Crime. The facts are:
Seniors are less likely than younger people to be robbed, attacked, or raped
People who live in crime-laden neighborhoods are at risk, regardless of their age
Seniors are more at risk of crime by their family members or caregivers than from strangers

27. Most of the Elderly Wind up in Nursing Homes.  Only about 5% of the elderly live in nursing homes. Those who live to be 100 live on their own well into their 90s. Their families, friends, and community services, provide the support they need to remain at home.  Nursing homes today often serve as rehabilitation centers where people stay to recover from a stroke, heart attack, or fall. In fact, 25% of seniors may briefly move to a long-term care facility for rehabilitation, from a few days to a few months, and then return home again.

28.  Most Seniors Live in Poverty.  Not so. Here are the facts:
About 20% of American seniors live in poverty; that is, 80% do not.
Canada ranks in third place with just 6.7% of seniors living in poverty

Tips for Staying Young

1. Keep Busy. One of my favorite Japanese TV shows documents the lives of ordinary people 80 ~ 100+ years old. They are all in good health and enjoy life to the fullest. What do they all have in common? Well, they follow the examples of George Burns, Grandma Moses, and Bob Hope by leading active lives; they keep busy. They would rather wear out than rust out. Regardless of your age, engage in life fully. If you’re not active, you’re not living.

2. Exercise. In 1996, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that only about 17% of people over 65 are regularly active. Regular exercise, even if it is just walking, does more than keep you nimble and flexible. Exercise reduces bodily toxins and maintains glandular health. It also tones the muscles, makes the heart stronger, and strengthens the bones. Stay active and you’ll stay healthy.

3. Exercise the Brain. Memory loss and a reduction in the capacity for learning may occur in some of the elderly. However, it is not because of their age as much as it is because of their failure to tax their brains. New brain cells grow throughout our lives, but unless we continue to use our mental faculties, the nerve cells will atrophy. It’s simply a case of use them or lose them. Reading, studying, and learning new skills act as medicine and exercise for the brain. Working with computers and the latest technological marvels is another excellent way to stay mentally fit.

4. Minimize Stress. Stress is the enemy of physical health and mental acuity. It reduces blood flow to the brain, reduces memory recall and learning ability. In the physical realm, stress is the leading cause of most diseases. Illness is aptly named “disease” because it is caused by being at dis-ease (stressed). To fight stress, take up yoga, taichi, or meditation. Long walks in the park, beautiful music, or painting also work wonders. But most of all, learn to accept the ‘irritants’ of life, for the cause of stress is resistance and the cause of resistance is refusal to accept what is.

5. A Healthy Diet. The so called Mediterranean Diet (one high in fish, fruit and vegetables) forms a good basis. Additionally, seniors should make sure they get enough calcium and fiber in their diet as well.

6. Drink Plenty of Water. Dehydration is a common problem with the elderly. The recommendation is one ounce of water per kilo (2.2 pounds) of body weight. It’s important to remember that alcohol, coffee, and soda pop do not count as water. On the contrary, as diuretics, their consumption doesn’t add, but further reduces the amount of water in our bodies.

7. Laughter. Laughter is a valuable aid to our well-being. It keeps us young by boosting our physical and psychological health. 
In keeping with the spirit of laughter, here’s a joke about the elderly:

Three old men are at the doctor’s office for a memory test. The doctor says to the first man, “What is three times three?”
“274,” answers the man.
The doctor says to the second man, “It’s your turn. What is three times three?”
“Tuesday,” replies the second man.
The doctor says to the third man, “Okay, your turn. What’s three times three?”
“Nine,” says the third man.
“That’s great!” says the doctor. “How did you get that?”
“Simple,” says the third man. “I subtracted 274 from Tuesday.”

8. Embrace Old Age. When you embrace old age, you’re embracing life. Don’t run or hide from it. My wife’s hair may no longer be black, but she is just as beautiful and a lot wiser. No wonder Marcus Annaeus Seneca said, “As for old age, embrace and love it. It abounds with pleasure if you know how to use it. The gradually declining years are among the sweetest in a man’s life, and I maintain that, even when they have reached the extreme limit, they have their pleasure still.”

9. Have Something to Look Forward to. By setting goals and cultivating hobbies, you’ll always have something to look forward to. Your next vacation or art class, an upcoming meeting with a friend, a visit to the theater, these can fill your life with enthusiasm and passion.

Here’s how three others expressed the same idea:

“While one finds company in himself and his pursuits, he cannot feel old, no matter what his years may be” (Amos Bronson Alcott),
“Keep on raging ̶ to stop the aging.” (Dale Carnegie)
“No one grows old by living, only by losing interest in living.” (Marie Beynon Ray)

10. Wonderment.
We are miracles living in the midst of miracles. How is it possible to live without wonder and awe? And when we experience it, how is it possible not to be like children, not to be young at heart? Or as Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote, “You must not pity me because my sixtieth year finds me still astonished. To be astonished is one of the surest ways of not growing old too quickly.”

11. Character. “Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years. People grow old by deserting their ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up wrinkles the soul. . . . You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair.” (Douglas MacArthur)

12. Positive Attitude. Pause and reflect on this quote from Samuel Ullman, “When the aerials are down, and your spirit is covered with snows of cynicism and the ice of pessimism, then you are grown old, even at twenty, but as long as your aerials are up, to catch the waves of optimism, there is hope you may die young at eighty.”

13. Remain in Love. Stay in love with life, friends, learning, hobbies, clubs. For as Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Those who love deeply never grow old; they may die of old age, but they die young.”

A paradox of old age is although we have less time to live, we have more time to spend. Freed from the time consumed by a full-time job, we now have time to spend with friends and family, hobbies, personal and spiritual growth, and volunteering. This stage of life can definitely become the most rewarding one. So, don’t count your years, but let your years count!



FROM AGE-ING TO SAGE-ING: A Revolutionary Approach to Growing Older by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller

ENJOY OLD AGE: A Program of Self-Management by B. F. Skinner and M. E. Vaughan

PRIME TIME: Creating a Great Third ACT by Jane Fonda

BBC News Magazine Article
The Greek Island of Old Age


Laura Carstensen: Older People Are Happier

Jane Fonda: Life’s Third Act