Debunked Misconceptions About Aging

According to the US Census Bureau, one-fifth of Americans will be above the age of 65 by 2030. With so many adults reaching retirement age, many worry that senior life will be depressing, lazy, and sick. But you might be surprised. Most seniors “feel” young, use the internet regularly, and exercise. If these facts piqued your interest, see what other misconceptions about aging there are that science has debunked.

Most Seniors Don’t “Feel” Old

Older adults dance together as part of a dance club.
HOANG DINH NAM/AFP via Getty Images
HOANG DINH NAM/AFP via Getty Images

Although seniors might look old, they do not feel old. In 2016, a study in the International Journal of Aging Research found that most seniors feel 20 years younger than they are. This was despite the fact that 60% of participants lived with chronic pain.

This feeling, called “age inside,” is what keeps older people working. In July 2020, a different survey found that 65% of seniors feel more positive about aging than they expected to. They felt more positive and held a stronger sense of purpose.

Most Seniors Are Not Depressed

An elderly couple sits outside and chats.
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Some people believe that most seniors suffer from mental health illnesses. But according to the World Health Organization, only 15% of seniors suffer from cognitive ailments. A person’s risk of mental illness rises with age, but that does not mean that all seniors are depressed.

In 2016, a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that most seniors felt happier in old age than they did in their 20s. “[The research] suggests that with age, there’s a progressive improvement in mental health,” said geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Dilip Jeste.

Seniors Do Not Require Less Sleep

An elderly woman sleeps next to medications on the table.
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

Many people believe that seniors require less sleep than younger adults. But according to the National Institution on Aging, this is a myth. Seniors still require between seven and nine hours of sleep, but many struggle to get that much.

Neurologist Jack Gardner told WebMD that there are many reasons why seniors do not sleep as well. For one, insomnia and sleep apnea become more common with age. Health conditions such as diabetes begin showing symptoms, and medications can interrupt sleep as well. At any age, never think that getting five hours of sleep is “normal.”

Dementia Is Not A Guarantee

A therapist looks through a photo album with an elderly woman with dementia.
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Alexandra Beier/Getty Images

Dementia is a real concern for many people. But according to the American Geriatrics Association, only 7% of adults over age 60 have it. When you look at adults over 71 years old, 13.9% have it. That’s still a very low percentage.

As research on dementia progresses, adults can learn methods to prevent it. Regular exercise, keeping weight down, and maintaining an active social life can drastically reduce your chances of dementia. If you are concerned, talk to your doctor about ways to enhance cognitive health.

Chronic Pain Is Common, But Not A Guarantee

A doctor examines an elderly patient's knee.
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

The likelihood of chronic pain increases with age, says the CDC. But that is not a guarantee for every adult. According to the National Institute of Health, 55% of older adults report chronic pain that impacts their daily life. Eighteen percent say that their pain does not affect their daily life, while 27% report no pain at all.

For most older adults, chronic pain stems from arthritis. Other common sources are neck aches, back pain, and joint pain. Fortunately, methods such as therapy, medication, and spiritual practices can lower that pain, says The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

Genes Do Not Determine Illness Later In Life

An elderly aid hugs a senior woman during home care.
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Joe Raedle/Getty Images

If a disease runs in your family, you are more likely to get it. However, that is not a guarantee. According to the National Institute of Health, most age-related diseases are caused by lifestyle habits, such as a poor diet, substance abuse, or lack of exercise.

Even if you have a genetic disposition for a disease, you can override that likelihood with healthy habits. Plus, genes are not a death sentence. In 2010, researchers from Boston University confirmed that some genes can help people live longer–along with a healthy lifestyle, of course.

Most Seniors Use The Internet

Several seniors type on laptops.
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Although many people joke about seniors not understanding the internet, many of them do. In 2019, 73% of people above the age of 65 used the internet. Older adults do not simply “give up” and disconnect from the outside world.

In fact, a study from Pew University found that many older adults spend over four hours a day online. That said, many seniors still do not fully understand technology. Shengzhi Wang, a researcher from the University of California, San Diego, said that frustration is the most common barrier between seniors and the internet.

Many Seniors Still Drive

A senior couple waves to the camera from a convertible.
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BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

For some people, one of the biggest fears about aging is not being able to drive. But more seniors are driving than ever before. According to the CDC, 45 million drivers in the US were over age 65 in 2018. That’s a 60% increase since the year 2000.

Emergency room physician Emmy Betz told Consumer Reports that seniors tend to be safer drivers. They usually wear seatbelts and follow road laws more often. Because 75% of seniors live in an area with little public transportation, many aim to drive as long as they can.

Yes, Older Adults Should Still Exercise

Two elderly adults run together.
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Al Bello/Getty Images

According to a common aging myth, seniors should take it easy and avoid exercise. But this perception might harm people. Seniors should exercise; it is one of the most important healthy habits to keep up during aging, says the CDC. Older adults should aim to work out around 150 minutes a week, or 30 minutes throughout five days.

Former research said that muscle decline and joint pain were a common part of aging. But according to Harvard Health Publishing, recent studies have determined that these symptoms are preventable. Seniors who exercise, even lightly, can lower their risk of chronic pain, dementia, and dependence on others.

Seniors Do Not Lose All Of Their Life Goals

An elderly woman arranges yarn at a shop where she works.
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Tim Boyle/Getty Images

An aging myth states that as people age, their life “ends,” as in they lose the motivation to work or engage in hobbies. But research suggests the opposite. In July 2020, scientists from the University of Michigan reported that 80% of seniors felt a strong sense of purpose. They still improved their hobbies, life goals, and relationships.

This relationship is also a two-way street. Research in JAMA Network Open found that seniors with a life purpose tended to live longer. In defining “life purpose,” researchers considered family, hobbies, career, spirituality, and more.

Most Older Adults Can Still Hold A Job

A 72-year-old man works the cash register at Walmart.
J.D. Pooley/Getty Images
J.D. Pooley/Getty Images

In 1996, only 12% of adults over age 65 worked; today, at least 19% of them work. Plenty of seniors still hold jobs despite their old age. While some people work because they cannot afford to retire, others continue because they want to.

And we haven’t even touched on volunteering. According to the National Service, 23.5% of seniors volunteer. In America, adults over age 65 contribute almost two billion hours of service and $45.4 million to charity. Even when people retire, they want to work on something meaningful.

Old Folks CAN Learn New Tricks

An elderly woman watches a lecturer teach a class about memory.
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, seniors can continue to learn new facts and hobbies. Not only that–they should learn more! In 2019, researchers from California University gave seniors iPads to learn a variety of skills. Those who learned a new language, skill, or hobby had their brains turn 30 years younger. Continual learning can stave off Alzheimer’s.

This issue is that many seniors choose not to continue learning. During a 2017 AARP survey, 50% of older adults reported that they did not learn something new every week. If seniors prioritize learning, they’ll feel younger.

Older Adults Do Not Have To End Up Alone

Two elderly women take a break from shopping and chat on a bench.
mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images
mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images

Older adults are not sentenced to life in isolation, nor do they enjoy being alone. In fact, senior living communities are built to help retired people socialize with each other. A study by the Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging found that 69% of seniors were happier when they lived in a senior community.

Socialization is incredibly important for aging. In their book Successful Aging, Dr. John Rowe and Dr. Robert Kahn wrote that socializing lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s, keeps people active, improves memory, and even helps people live longer.

The Average Life Expectancy Is Increasing

A couple hugs as they celebrate their anniversary.
Derrick Warren/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Derrick Warren/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

If someone says that the average lifespan is decreasing, double-check that. Most researchers agree that life expectancy is increasing. In 2018, scientists from the CDC found that the average lifespan increased for the first time in four years, and it has risen since then.

In 2020, the average life expectancy was 70 for men and 75 for women. Because these are averages, many people live longer. Every year, the average lifespan changes because the rates of illnesses and accidents always change. But most seniors can embrace a long life.

A Healthy Diet Still Matters

A couple eats lunch together at a community center.
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although some seniors give up on their diet, healthy eating still matters in old age. The National Council of Aging says that a healthy diet can help you live longer, even as a senior. This is especially important for people with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or dementia.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, a person’s eating habits naturally change with age. Your appetite and metabolism might slow down, and you might eat fewer calories than before. However, if you adjust your diet accordingly, you’ll end up feeling younger.

Senior Life Is Not Dull, Lazy, Or Boring

An elderly man and woman sail on a boat through a harbor.
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The common perception of senior life is a day filled with TV and sleep. But in 2011, the American Time Use Survey put this to the test. Researchers found that many seniors still work, albeit less often–around 3.5 hours per day. Others spend several hours volunteering, shopping, or doing household chores.

That said, older adults tend to relax more often than younger ones. According to the study, people over 65 spend an average of seven hours daily on leisurely activities. These include reading, TV, art, and anything else that relaxes them.

No Matter Your Age, You Can Still Lose Weight

Seniors stretch during an exercise class.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Although losing weight becomes harder with age, it is not impossible. In Clinical Endocrinology, a study concluded that obese people over age 60 can lose as much weight as younger adults. They just need to tweak their lifestyle and diet.

Unfortunately, over 43% of seniors are obese, according to the CDC. According to nutritionist Joanna Li, the general rules of healthy weight loss still apply: eat fewer calories, bulk up on protein, drink water, and exercise. A healthy diet can help seniors live longer, just as it does with younger adults.

Intimacy Still Matters In Old Age

A senior couple walks hand-in-hand.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Intimacy does not magically disappear with age. In 2017, scientists from the University of Michigan reported that 76% of seniors above the age of 50 agree that sexual intimacy is still important. “There is no age limit,” says Dr. Stephanie A. Sanders, an associate director of The Kinsey Institute.

Intimacy can also delay death. According to Sanders, research has found that seniors with partners or spouses tend to live longer. In addition, new medications are helping seniors remain active even with certain diseases and cognitive impairment.

Retirement Is Not Always Poverty

An elderly couple sits on a cruise.
Tim Graham/Getty Images
Tim Graham/Getty Images

Poverty amongst the elderly is a problem. According to a report by the Congressional Research Services, about 9.2% of Americans above age 65 live in poverty. This is lower than the poverty rate among young adults, but it’s still a struggle for millions of Americans.

On the bright side, the senior poverty rates have decreased by almost 70% within the past five decades, says the same 2019 report. The likelihood of poverty changes among groups. For instance, the National Institute on Retirement Security found that women over age 65 are 80% more likely to become impoverished.

Senior Life Is Not Filled With Regret

Two senior women perform a famous comedic dance next to a statue of Eric Morcambe.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

With dozens of articles published about older peoples’ regrets, one can easily think that senior life is consumed by regret. In 2014, a study by the National Council of Aging found that most seniors focus on improving their present. They work on education, hobbies, their families, and more.

While old age forces people to look back on their life, many seniors still believe in present blessings. In the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, a study found that 90% of adults have major regrets, no matter their age. Regret exists during any walk in life.