Boomer Goals Series: Declining Mental Acuity and Other Myths About Aging

A brain that's actually a puzzle

(Editor’s note: Welcome to the fourth installment of the Boomer Goals Series, which will dig deeper into topics facing the “Baby Boomer” Generation. Check out the first installment, about the importance of giving back in retirement, here and check out the second installment, on maintaining good health into retirement, here, and the third installment, on the ins and outs of phased retirement, here!)

Many people, young and old, make assumptions when it coms to aging. Phrases like, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” don’t help. Before long, assumptions become widely held beliefs, which can have a negative effect. The law of attraction suggests that our beliefs and behaviors affect life events and experiences. As a result, myths about aging can undermine our potential to live our boldest life. Of course, there is some decline with aging, but many commonly held perspectives are actually not true. With this in mind, the following are some of the most common myths about aging.

  • Sleep Needs Decrease with Aging

One of the myths about aging is that sleep needs decrease when we age. Because older adults are seen as being less active, some presume less rest is required. But in truth, our body’s sleep needs don’t change over time. Older adults need the same amount of sleep they did when they were young adults. Some may have insomnia that give this impression due to a decline in the brain’s sleep mechanisms. Others may go to bed earlier and wake earlier. But when it comes to the amount of sleep needed, nothing changes. And because adequate sleep is linked to optimal health and wellness, it’s important to appreciate this fact. At any age, we should invest in healthy sleep practices to get the sleep we need. (Now would be a good time to check out this Project Bold Life story on 20 sleep hacks!)

  • Frailty and Weakness Are Part of Normal Aging

In terms of physical decline with aging, older adults do lose some degree of muscle mass over time. They also have some declines in coordination, balance, and agility. But these changes are gradual and insignificant when it comes to participating in exercise and physical activities. As with any age, we should actively participate in daily exercise. Likewise, physical activities should not only involve aerobics but similarly strength, flexibility, and endurance training. Myths about aging that assume frailty and weakness are normal in older adults are just that: myths. Instead, we should appreciate the importance of exercise with aging in optimizing physical and mental wellness. Investing in an active lifestyle is important at all ages if we wish to be our healthiest.

  • Memory Loss with Aging Is Inevitable

One of the common myths about aging involves a decline in memory. Believe it or not, memory function is not impaired in the vast majority of older adults. The risk for dementia does increase with age, but this is far from being part of a normal aging process. Those who participate in active learning, word games, and physical activities have even less risk for disease-related memory loss. But healthy older adults see no significant change in their memory abilities or decline with aging. This has been shown repeatedly with memory and cognitive tests performed during routine examinations. Naturally, if you suspect your memory is failing, then seeking medical evaluations are important. But assuming memory loss in inevitable as we get older is one of the more common myths about aging.

  • Mental Processing Begins Slowing in Early Adulthood

As with beliefs about memory decline with aging, many also think the same about mental processing. In the past, scientists and researchers suggested mental speed peaked at age 20 and gradually declined thereafter. But more recent research shows that mental processing speed and decision-making remains fast to age 60. Testing over a million adults, researchers found mental processing to be well preserved in older adults. The delays noted before age 60 weren’t due to mental slowing. Instead, they were due to more cautious decision-making that came with experience. Therefore, prior beliefs that mental decline began at age 20 appear to also fall into the category of myths about aging. Sometimes, the best decision isn’t always the fastest, and aging may actually help us realize this.

  • Depression Affects Older Adults the Most

After retirement, many older adults lose their previous social networks and supports. Thus, isolation can be a problem if efforts to create new social circles are made. However, though social isolation can lead to depression, depression affects a relatively small number of older adults. In fact, depression affects a much higher number of adolescents and young adults than older individuals. Therefore, assuming depression and aging go hand-in-hand is also one of the common myths about aging. Social networks can decline with aging, but this doesn’t have to be the case. And for those who engage in volunteerism and community projects, the rate of depression is quite low.

  • Older Adults Have No Interest in Sex

Another one of the common myths about aging relates to intimacy and sexual relations. In a recent survey involving adults age 50-80 years, more than 40% reported being sexually active. More importantly, two-thirds were interested in sexual relations, with three-quarters believing it was important. Sexual function may decline with aging, but it is not something that is a given by any means. Intimacy remains a cornerstone of health and wellness even in our later years. Therefore, it’s important to recognize that these misperceptions represent false myths about aging as well.

Living Boldly in Your Later Years

There are some things that decline with aging, but as appreciated, many myths about aging do exist. The decline that occurs rarely prevents us from pursuing the kind of life we desire. However, if we don’t recognize that many commonly held beliefs are false, we may fail to pursue healthy behaviors. The first step is to therefore identify which beliefs are accurate and which ones are myths about aging. In doing so, we will realize our potential to thrive in our later years isn’t that compromised. In fact, these are the years we can leverage wisdom and experience to become our boldest.

 

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Through timely and thoughtful articles, the book Project Bold Life: The Proven Formula to Take on Challenges and Achieve Happiness and Success, and other media, we deliver engaging content that educates, motivates and inspires you to live a Bold Life.
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