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Aging Myths, Busted
Don’t just get older – get wiser
By Kate Morgan

Today’s seniors understand that age is just a number. As we age, taking care of ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally – and not buying into these myths about getting older – can make your years golden. 

 

MYTH #1: You’ll become frail 

Frailty – the loss of muscle mass, weakness and a decline in mobility – is not a normal part of aging, says Lenny Powell, DO, assistant professor of geriatrics and gerontology at Rowan Medicine’s New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging.  

“After 65 is when you start to really feel things like arthritis and bone pain,” Powell says. “You start to need more Tylenol or pain meds, and you may feel resigned to these new aches and pains. But a lot of these things can be managed through low-impact exercising, walking, and generally staying active. The more active you are, the more likely you are to be – and stay – independent.”  

Ankur Patel, MD, medical director of Inspira LIFE Vineland, says the best way to combat frailty is to hit the gym.  

“A cardio exercise regimen can help with endurance and walking speed,” he says. “It may also help you keep up a healthy appetite. Resistance and weight training can help preserve muscle mass; this should be done for at least 30 minutes a day, five times a week.”  

 

Myth #2: Age kills your libido 

“Shocker: people don’t stop having sex after 65,” Powell says. 

Though depression, chronic medical conditions and physical issues may have an impact on the libido, most of these, though, are treatable, he says. 

“Sexual dysfunction can occur in both men and women,” Powell continues. “In men, the inability to achieve a sufficient erection for intercourse affects nearly 70 percent of men by age 70. Some common causes include diabetes, medications or diminished amounts of testosterone. Treatment options include medications like Viagra, Cialis or Levitra.”  

In women, a reduced sex drive, difficulty with physical arousal or an inability to achieve orgasm can be the result of pelvic floor issues, inflammation or infection.  

“A pelvic exam can assess the causes and treatment,” Powell says. “Water-soluble lubricants or estrogen creams are often useful. The bottom line? Sex is ok after 65, so enjoy!”  

 

Myth #3: Your genes will dictate how you age 

To some extent, there’s truth to this. Many chronic illnesses, which become more prevalent as people age, have a genetic component. But that doesn’t mean you have no control. Lifestyle choices you make – both in your youth and as you grow older – can have a significant impact on the aging process.  

“Regular physical exercise, eating a Mediterranean diet, not smoking, drinking alcohol in moderation, good sleep hygiene and brain-stimulating exercises can all contribute to successful aging,” Patel says. 

And it’s never too late to make a change in lifestyle, adds Powell. 

“You’re not going to turn 65 and suddenly all the things you did are gonna catch up with you,” he says. “Plus, you can continue to have the things you want in moderation. I’m not going to tell an older Italian woman not to have the glass of wine that makes her happy. If you’re a diabetic who wants a candy bar, just have the fun size.”  

With regular screening, even the genetically influenced chronic conditions that tend to manifest in later years are manageable. Powell suggests regular mammograms and colonoscopies, and a focus on preventative medicine.  

“You can’t change your genes or what you did in the past,” he says. “But you can change what you do in the future.”  

 

Myth #4: It’s normal to feel confused and forgetful 

After the age of 85, Powell says, 30 to 40 percent of people will experience some form of dementia. Some are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which is an incurable, genetic form of dementia. The good news, though, is that many other forms of dementia are curable and even totally preventable.  

“Memory loss is not a normal part of aging,” he says. “It’s normal for cognition to slow down a little bit. You might need a little more time to answer a question, but pure forgetfulness is not typical.”  

Conditions that are completely unrelated to degenerative brain disorders like Alzheimer’s can mimic its symptoms. High cholesterol can result in vascular dementia, which, Powell explains, causes “constant mini-strokes that can result in brain damage. You can avoid it by managing three things: diabetes, cholesterol and blood pressure.”  

In older patients, the symptoms of clinical depression can also look like the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s. The difference, though, is that depression is curable.  

“When you ask someone, ‘Do you feel like you’re having problems with your memory?’ and they say yes, it’s probably not dementia,” Powell says. “If they know it’s happening, that’s a good sign.”  

Patel says depression is a very common problem in older adults.  

“Older adults are less likely to recognize depression,” he says. “It’s one of the most under-diagnosed issues in our elderly population. Someone who’s 40 will go to the doctor and tell them all their depressive symptoms. Older adults usually complain of a lack of energy, fatigue, forgetfulness or increased pain, and they attribute those symptoms to old age. Before I diagnose someone with dementia, one of my golden rules is to rule out depression.”  

Cognitive ability is a use-it-or-lose-it kind of thing – the best way to keep your mind and memory running smoothly is to stimulate yourself with social activities and engaging hobbies. 

 

Myth #5: You’ll be bored and lose interest in life 

As we age, we may be faced with numerous periods of adjustment, Powell explains, and these can really throw us for a loop.  

“People look at retirement as, ‘I’m losing my job,’” he says. “They don’t realize it doesn’t mean you have to stop doing what you enjoy. If your spouse dies, it’s normal to go through a couple months of bereavement and adjustment. There are lots of situational changes like this – retiring, losing a spouse, a change in your living situation – that can cause depression, but it’s all in how you deal with it.”  

The best way to deal with it, he says, is to keep doing things you enjoy – and find new things, too.  

“You can still volunteer, teach and stay busy,” he says. “Community colleges and universities often offer discounted or free classes to seniors. Being older doesn’t mean you can’t learn a new skill. Embrace the technology! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a patient’s room and they’re playing Candy Crush.” 

And as long as you feel safe, you don’t need to sacrifice your independence.  

“As people age, they worry about their driving ability,” Powell says. “As long as you feel like you’re capable and your family isn’t voicing any concerns, keep doing it.”  

At Inspira’s LIFE Center in Vineland, Patel’s team provides a long list of activities designed to promote physical health and socialization.  

“There’s bingo, chair Zumba, painting, music; we have a whole recreation department to provide activities,” he says. “We try to do outside-the-box stuff to cater to every patient’s interests. If you have something to look forward to, it fights depression and helps keep the mind sharp.”  

A combination of mental stimulation, overall physical wellness and preventative care is the recipe for successful aging, Patel explains.  

“The key is to have good physical and psychological health, as well as a social support network,” he says.  

“Successful aging is not only the absence of chronic illness, but the life satisfaction of the elderly person. People with high levels of resilience, low rates of depression and a good social network are most likely to age successfully and, perhaps more importantly, report high levels of life satisfaction into their golden years.”

July 2018
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