Aging can often be associated with problems such as dementia, memory loss and physical deterioration. But how much of this should we expect, and how much is a myth?
Experts from the the Aging Institute of UPMC Senior Services and the University of Pittsburgh, which provides access to a large network of comprehensive clinical care, aging-related research and geriatric as well as gerontologic education programs, gave us some insight on the myths versus realities about aging:
Myth #1: I’ll become senile, suffer mental deterioration, and get depressed.
Reality check: The risk for dementia does increase with age, but even if you’re over 80, the chances of developing dementia are less than 50 percent. Although depressive symptoms are common in the elderly, the incidence and prevalence of clinical depression do not increase as we get older. Moreover, good treatments are available to help diminish the burden of dementia and depression on both patients and caregivers.
Myth #2: Older adults will suffer vision and hearing loss.
Reality check: Some visual abilities decline significantly more with increasing age than do others. Tasks that involve perceiving objects that are dimly lit, moving or masked by other stimuli become considerably more difficult after middle age. Locating a target object in a field of distracting stimuli becomes more difficult after about age 60. In general, the effects of aging are more pronounced on visual tasks that are more complicated.
Hearing is the sense most affected by aging, in part because of long-term exposure to intense noise such as loud industrial machinery. But serious hearing impairments are the exception rather than the rule, especially among those who obtain regular hearing check-ups after middle age. Moreover, hearing aids, glasses and other assists can help to mitigate or compensate for the burden of vision and hearing loss.
Myth #3: There is a universal decline in intelligence with increasing age.
Reality check: Some intellectual abilities do show significant decrements as we grow older, especially after middle age. But the declines in other abilities are small and do not appear to have much effect on our daily functioning. The majority of elderly adults do not suffer extreme deterioration in intelligence, though some losses may be expected in areas such as perceptual integration, response speed and certain aspects of memory. Older adults, however, are often in a position to offer the perspective and wisdom that accrues from long experience.
Myth #4: The years after the last child leaves home (the “empty nest” syndrome) is a time of considerable emotional pain, particularly for women.
Reality check: The relief from the responsibility of daily child rearing, greater opportunities to indulge in personal interests, and increased freedom and privacy most often lead to improved personal well-being. Older age is a time of many such transitions in major roles, but these can usually be navigated successfully, and help is available for “bumps” in the road.
Myth #5: Most parents age 65 and older are neglected by their adult children who never visit them, or who place them in nursing homes.
Reality check: Approximately 80 percent of parents over age 65 see at least one of their adult children every one to two weeks. Most families place elderly parents in nursing homes only as a last resort, and with utmost reluctance
Myth #6: Most adults past age 65 are so physically incapacitated that they must depend to a great extent on other people.
Reality check: Helplessness and dependency are not characteristic of old age. About 87 percent of adults over 65 are able to cope more than adequately with the demands of everyday living.
To learn more about what happens as we get older, visit the Aging Institute website.