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Older Americans Month: An Opportunity to Tackle Some Common Myths About Aging

May 30, 2023

common myths about aging

In April 60 years ago, President John F. Kennedy met with members of the National Council of Senior Citizens to discuss the challenges and unmet needs of millions of older adults in this country.

As a result of that meeting, May was designated Senior Citizens Month, the precursor of Older Americans Month. Now, the Administration for Community Living (ACL) creates a themed campaign every year encouraging organizations, groups and individuals to celebrate Older Americans Month.

2023: The Year of Aging Unbound

This year’s theme for Older Americans Month is “Aging Unbound.” The ACL says the theme “offers an opportunity to explore diverse aging experiences and discuss how communities can combat stereotypes [of aging].”

Society, at least in the U.S., tends to discount and devalue the positive aspects of being an older adult. Myths about aging can prevent seniors from getting the most out of their retirement years. And because these myths exist, communities across the country overlook a precious asset.    

At Emerald Heights, we believe education plays a prominent role in eliminating the misconceptions that many people — including many seniors — have about aging. Eventually, as the myths fade, more seniors will know what it’s like to live unbound by the stereotypes of aging.

Here we provide information to help dispel five common fallacies about growing older.

Myth #1: Dementia is an inevitable part of aging.

One reason this myth is so pervasive is that many people don’t understand what dementia is. The terms dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are not the same.

Differentiating Dementia from Alzheimer’s Disease

Dementia is not a specific disease. While Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for 60%-80% of all cases, there are other types and causes of dementia.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines dementia as “a general term for the impaired ability to remember, think or make decisions that interferes with doing everyday activities.”

The CDC acknowledges that some age-related memory changes are normal. These might manifest in behaviors such as occasionally misplacing items or the temporary inability to think of a specific word or recall an acquaintance’s name.

By comparison, the signs and symptoms of dementia, which vary from one person to the next, are generally more serious and more obvious. They can include:

  • Getting lost in familiar surroundings
  • Forgetting the name of a close friend or relative
  • Using peculiar words when referring to familiar objects
  • Forgetting old memories

Dementia can affect a person’s memory and the ability to pay attention, communicate, reason, make sound judgments and solve problems.  

Most Seniors Do Not — and Will Not — Have Dementia

Research conducted at Columbia University and published in 2022 found that 22% of adults age 65 or older had mild cognitive impairment, while slightly less than 10% had dementia.

Advancing age increased the percentages: 3% of those between the ages of 65 and 69 had dementia, whereas 35% of those who were at least 90 years old did. 

These numbers reveal that even among those 90-99 years of age, the majority of older adults do not have dementia.

Further, while CDC projections suggest the percentage of people age 65 or older in the U.S. with dementia will increase to approximately 15%, or nearly 14 million older adults by 2060, this still indicates 85% of people in this age group will not have dementia. 

Myth #2: Seniors should just slow down and take it easy.

This may have been true many generations ago, when life expectancy was shorter. But today we know far more about the importance of physical activity for people of all ages.

By all means, retirement should be a time of less stress, with more opportunities for leisurely pursuits. As we’ve noted in several earlier blog posts, though, such as this one, the physical, mental and social benefits of staying active are abundant.

Even though mobility and health issues might prohibit certain activities, nearly all older adults can find enjoyable forms of recreation. 

Myth #3: People need less sleep as they grow older.

In general, all adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. However, changes in sleep patterns can make insomnia more common in older adults. 

In particular, seniors may have difficulty staying asleep, or they may wake too early and not be able to go back to sleep. Lack of sleep can cause tiredness or sleepiness during the day, irritability, and trouble focusing or remembering.

A persistent lack of sleep can lead to a variety of chronic illnesses, from high blood pressure and heart disease to obesity and diabetes. Conversely, some diseases — such as arthritis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — can cause insomnia. So can medications, including some commonly prescribed for older adults, such as statins, beta blockers and ACE inhibitors.

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) is a good source of information for older adults who want to sleep better. Anyone who experiences trouble sleeping for more than a few weeks should seek treatment.

Myth #4: It’s normal for older adults to be lonely or depressed.

While certain events and situations that can cause loneliness or depression may be more common for seniors, these feelings are not a normal part of the aging process.

Older adults can feel isolated, lonely or depressed for many reasons, such as:

  • The loss of a spouse or close friends
  • Withdrawal from social activities, often because of physical or mental health issues
  • Lack of purpose or motivation
  • Loss of mobility, including the ability to drive safely

On the other hand, many older adults have the advantage of being able to draw on a lifetime of experience, memories and relationships to ward off loneliness and depression.

Staying connected is vital for seniors to thrive. Quite often, the abundance of social activities and the ease of making new friends are among the most appealing aspects of moving to a senior living community. Senior community centers are also good options for those who want to make new connections.

Those with (or without) limited mobility can connect with friends and family by phone, online and through apps such as Zoom or FaceTime. Virtual clubs, online group activities (e.g., bingo and trivia) and the Virtual Senior Center are great ways to make new acquaintances.   

Lingering feelings of depression and loneliness may signal the need for help from a medical professional. Older adults may be less likely to ask for help, so if you notice behaviors in an older family member or friend that might indicate depression, try talking about it with them.

Myth #5: It’s too hard to learn new things when you’re older, so there’s no point in trying.

Yes, aging can lead to changes in cognition but, as the NIA points out, learning new skills may actually improve cognitive abilities.

Learning a new language or taking music lessons may require more effort at 70 than it would have in childhood, but the extra effort pays considerable dividends. And there’s no need to tackle something complex to gain the benefits. Besides being fun, learning a new hobby, like digital photography, or taking ballroom dance lessons can keep older people’s brains active and potentially boost their cognitive health.

Here at Emerald Heights, resident-led interest groups and lifelong learning classes are very popular. Some residents keep their minds sharp by tutoring students. Others help their neighbors learn how to navigate their mobile devices — which can seem as challenging as learning a new language.  

As the ACL says in some of its materials promoting Older Americans Month, “With age comes knowledge, which provides insight and confidence to understand and experience the world more deeply.” The ACL recommends that older adults continue to grow their knowledge through reading, listening, classes and creative activities.

Clearing Up Misconceptions About Assisted Living

At Emerald Heights, when we talk with people who are interested in our community either for themselves or a loved one, we find that many have misconceptions about assisted living.

For instance, they might believe that moving into assisted living means they’ll give up their independence. Or they might think they won’t have any privacy or autonomy.

Others think assisted living is the same as living in a nursing home and that they have to be sick or disabled to qualify for assisted living.  

In reality, assisted living is for older adults who are independent but need some help with routine activities, such as getting dressed or bathing, or reminders to take their medications.

We can’t speak for all assisted living communities, but at Emerald Heights, residents in assisted living have access to all of the same activities, services and amenities as residents in independent living.

They’re free to come and go as they please, and we provide scheduled transportation for anyone who wants it. Residents in assisted living set their own schedules and make their own choices. We’re here to provide support and assistance when they need it.

If this sounds like an appropriate living arrangement for you or someone you care about, you can learn more about assisted living in our Corwin Center and contact us to set up a personal visit to our community.  

In the meantime, we hope you’ll share this information and help us bust some myths about aging!

Featured Image: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock