Truth About Aging

5 Common Misconceptions About Aging
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There is a tendency toward age bias in our society. Typical stereotypes are that seniors are "slow" or have poor memory, for example. In addition, Princeton University professors have uncovered prescriptive prejudice, which are beliefs about how older adults should act. They found three key ideas:

  • Succession, the idea that older adults should move aside from high-paying jobs and prominent social roles to make way for younger people

  • Identity, the idea that older people should not attempt to act younger than they are

  • Consumption, the idea that seniors should not consume so many scarce resources, such as healthcare

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Seems we're battling a lot. There are misperceptions and perhaps unrealistic expectations among younger people about older people. Let's take a closer look at five of the most common:

Misconception: When you're old, relationships are about companionship, not romance.

Truth: Dating never changes. The dramas around finding romance when you're older are the same as when you were young.

Of course, with older women typically outnumbering older men, the "catfighting" might actually be exacerbated in an aging society. A lot of women compete for a few lucky guys!

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My mom, soon to be 92, dated throughout her eighties. As with any romance, for her it was about finding people who had similar interests, took care of themselves, and could hold a conversation.

On the reality show Forever Young, on TV Land, one episode poignantly depicted generational similarities, as the older house members helped the younger ones prepare for a date -- and then vice versa. All of them were nervous. All of them were looking for a connection. Some succeeded, some did not.

Misconception: When you're old, sexual relations stop.

Truth: Not by a long shot. Many older Americans routinely engage in intercourse, oral sex, and masturbation, according to one study published by the New England Journal of Medicine. The study included 3,005 men and women. Among those aged 57 to 64, 73 percent said they continued to have sex; 53 percent of those 65 to 74 and 26 percent of those 75 to 85 gave the same answer.

A survey of 250 residents in 15 Texas nursing homes found that 8 percent of them said they had had sexual intercourse in the preceding month, and 17 percent more wished they'd had.

In one New York nursing home, when the staff learns of coupling in the works, they don't wait for residents to ask for a private room. They relocate one of the partners to a private room if both are in shared rooms.

Misconception: You will become socially isolated.

Truth: It's your choice. While it is true that social isolation can become a problem as you age, the capacity to pick meaningful friendships could be better. Mature adults tend to understand themselves well, and they also understand other people. In a study published in the Journal of Gerontology, older adults were especially good at solving interpersonal dilemmas. "As we get older, our social intelligence keeps expanding," explains Dr. Margaret Gatz, professor of psychology, gerontology, and preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, speaking to O Magazine. "We get better at sizing up people, at understanding how relationships work."

One bit of caution: In the book The Longevity Project, Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin explain their 20-year study following subjects from childhood to adulthood to discover why some thrived well into old age and others did not. They found that friendly, outgoing people do not necessarily live longer. They conclude that highly sociable people may tend more to engage in the dangers of the moment and give in to the crowd.

Misconception: Your brain capacity decreases.
Truth: Your brain is a work in progress. Studies show your brain continues to strengthen as long as you continue to challenge it. The brain is continually reshaping itself in response to what it learns. In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, German researcher Janina Boyke and her colleagues taught 60-year-old adults how to juggle. Afterward, scans showed growth in a gray-matter region that processes complex visual information. A George Washington University study found that older adults who joined a choir were in better health, had smaller increases in medication use, and had fewer falls after a year than a similar group that didn't join. So keep your brain stimulated and you will continue to grow.

Misconception: We grow up to be grumpy old men and women.
Truth: We get happier. At TEDxWomen, psychologist Laura Carstensen shows research that demonstrates that as people get older they become happier, more content, and have a more positive outlook on the world.

Researchers from Heidelberg, Germany, interviewed 40 centenarians and found that, despite significant physical and mental problems, 71 percent said they were happy, and more than half said they were as happy as they'd been at younger ages.

According to a study in PNAS, happy people have a 35 percent reduced risk of dying compared with those who reported feeling least happy.

Romantic, sexual, social, smart, and happy elders -- sounds like a great way to age and to live. That's something to emulate.

Anthony Cirillo

Guest Contributor Anthony is president of The Aging Experience. See full bio