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Our country is getting grayer. The number of senior citizens in the U.S. has increased in the past decade to the point where baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — now account for a quarter of the population. And life expectancy, along with what doctors describe as our "active lifespan," is predicted to increase by another two years in the next decade. There are also more seniors in the workforce as boomers elect to continue working past retirement age, although this is due in part to the recent economic downturn, as well as the financial shortcomings of Social Security. The welcome presence and valuable contributions of elderly Americans is helping to debunk some common myths regarding seniors and the aging process. Here are seven such myths that have been disproved.
- The grumpy old man is a caricature we can't help but laugh at, even as we ourselves continue to grow older and turn into that man. But interestingly, the age group that is most prone to stress and depression is the 20-something demographic, whereas many studies confirm that people actually become happier as they age. Older adults understand how much less stressful life is when you "don't sweat the small stuff" and are adept at letting go of disappointment and regret. As people age, they also often make a conscious effort to participate in life-affirming activities and to be among people who lift their spirits.
- The human body does slow down as it ages. However, sickness, especially serious sickness, is not part of the aging process. In fact, a recent study of a group of seniors by the New England Centenarian Study at Boston Medical Center showed that more than 40% of those who lived to be 100 did not suffer from age-related sicknesses until they reached the age of 80. And 15% of those studied had no age-related illnesses at all by the time they hit 100.
- Senility is a broad, ultimately unhelpful term used to stereotype the behavior of senior citizens. At best, it may describe the symptoms of dementia, a non-specific syndrome that actually affects people of all ages. Alzheimer's disease is a form of dementia that predominantly, but not exclusively, develops in old age. After the age of 65, the risk of developing Alzheimer's doubles every five years. However, dementia is often misdiagnosed as part of the aging process, when in fact symptoms of dementia can be caused by medications, malnutrition, alcohol abuse, and thyroid, kidney, and liver disorders. While it is true that one in eight older Americans have Alzheimer's disease, dementia is not an inevitable result of getting old.
- Well, OK. After the age of 75, you're going to slow down just a bit, no matter what Hugh Hefner would have you believe. But getting older doesn't mean you stop having sex entirely. Seniors can have healthy sexual relations as long as they wish. Given the fact that regular exercise and a healthy diet benefits the libido, and in turn, sexual relations make for a healthier, less stressful life, shouldn't folks interested in (ahem) longevity make every effort to keep getting it on in their golden years?
- When it comes to experience, seniors are a great learning resource for younger people. And thankfully, there's nothing about the aging process that impairs a senior-aged person's ability to learn something new as well. The brain is not wired to retire, but to instead welcome new challenges and explore new ideas. The number of senior-aged entrepreneurs in the workforce attests to this, as well as the number of innovative leaders over the age of 55 in the worlds of business, technology, and especially the creative arts.
- There is a stereotype that exists in the business world that pegs older workers as being slower, less productive, and unable to keep up with their younger co-workers. But older workers are often more efficient with their time, and have higher standards and a stronger work ethic in place than some of their younger counterparts. Add to that a willingness to embrace and become comfortable with developing technologies, as well as listen and learn, and a senior can be a formidable member of any business's team.
- How many times have you listened to a grandparent recount, in great detail and entirely from memory, an incident from their childhood, something that occurred 50 or 60 years ago? Growing older does not cause memory loss. However, physiological changes can affect the speed with which memories are retrieved. And just like any other muscle, the aging brain does need regular exercise in order to stay healthy. Brain exercises, like crosswords and Sudoku, as well as physical exercise, a good diet, and a lively social life, including visits from and interactions with the grandchildren, will help keep the aging mind fit.