~ Debunking More Myths About Getting Older

Work & Family Life, 11-14-05

Much of the conventional wisdom about aging is being challenged. For example, the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging has found that older people are as flexible as younger people, that the ability to cope improves as we get older-and that people who were cheerful and assertive at 30 are likely to be the same at age 80. Here are some more myths about aging that have been debunked by researchers:
  • You can't teach an old dog new tricks. Actually, older people are good learners because they have broader knowledge to begin with, a better vocabulary and more perspective than younger people, says Robert N. Butler, M.D., coauthor of The New Love and Sex after 60. Older people are also better at integrating knowledge and seeing connections-such as linking a piece of music with its historical context. On the job, they typically provide "institutional memory." And, many have learned to exercise their brain through problem-solving, crossword puzzles, reading and discussing what they've read, learning a new language and mastering a new technology.

  • Intense exercise is dangerous. Tufts University researchers have found that people who push themselves as they age are the most likely to be able to live independently. Intense exercise, of course, is different for a 90-year-old than for a 50-year-old. It might take less brisk walking or heavy lifting to get a "glow"-and what's considered "brisk" or "heavy" changes as the body does. It's important, of course, to get a doctor's okay before beginning an exercise program but, generally speaking, here are some good things older people can do for themselves: take out the trash, get down on the floor with grandchildren, ride a bike, take ballroom dancing lessons and engage in aerobic and strength-training activities.

  • Older people lose their senses of taste and smell. The effects of aging on taste and smell are overstated, says Richard Mattes, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Foods and Nutrition at Purdue University. There may be a slight loss of some tastebud function, but it does not interfere with the ability to eat a good diet. The main culprits responsible for the loss of one's taste and smell are smoking, poor oral hygiene, ill-fitting dentures and medications whose dosage and timing need adjusting.

  • Older people need less sleep. The fact that older people may not get a good night's sleep does not mean that they don't need it. Tufts-New England Medical Center researchers have found that sleep needs do not decline with age. The most common things keeping people awake late are eating and medications such as diuretics.

  • It's all downhill after a heart attack. In fact, cardiac rehabilitation programs have gotten many people on the road to good health. They provide counseling on how to lose weight, combat smoking, manage stress, lower cholesterol and start exercising. Many post-rehab heart patients "get in touch with their bodies" through physical activity and a healthier diet, says Philip Ades, M.D., a University of Vermont cardiologist.

  • Sex is over after 60. The percentage of people who view their partners as romantic and/or physically attractive may actually increase with age, according to a sexuality survey commissioned by AARP and Modern Maturity. The death of a partner, illness or lack of interest are why some people choose not to engage in sexual activity-but those reasons are not unique to older people, says Dr. Robert Butler. Antidepressants, high blood pressure medication and the overuse of alcohol are also common causes of sexual problems. As Dr. Butler says, "People see arthritis and heart problems as fixable, so why not sex?"

    -Adapted from the Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter


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