Good news: Big media is catching up to some truths about old age. First, in November, we had Bill Maher’s powerful rant on HBO. And in the past few weeks, both the Wall Street Journal and CNN have challenged ageist myths and delved into research showing, as the title of the WSJ article puts it, “Why Everything You Think About Aging May Be Wrong.”
Much of the myth-busting might seem old hat, but it bears repeating. After all, asCNN.com, “We are inundated with the message that aging is something we should dread and perhaps even fight… Internalizing these ageist stereotypes is harmful to your health.” (What a pity that she seems to have internalized some of that thinking herself: Bergquist refers to the benefits of “feeling young as you age,” as if “young” equals vivacity and “old” equals debility.)
In “5 powerful benefits of ‘pro-aging’ thinking,” Bergquist points to studies that suggest our attitudes about getting older play a role in how long we stay healthy – both physically and mentally. If we think we’re headed into a fuzzy-headed, frail-bodied abyss, we’re more likely to fall in to one.
Anne Tergesen, the Wall Street Journal’s retirement columnist, digs deeper in old-age mythology and offers plenty of ammunition for anyone wanting to set the record straight.
Here are her six myths:
1. Exercise – the more the better
Think you can beat old age (or “stay young”) by intensifying your workouts? Not so, Tergesen says. She cites the almost 40-year Copenhagen City Heart Study, in which runners lived on average six years longer than non-runners – but people who ran fast more than four hours a week cancelled those longevity benefits. It turns out that those who jogged at a moderate pace for just one or two hours a week, with a couple of days off, fared the best. Take time to smell the roses!
2. Young people have the corner on creativity
Well, yes and no. When it comes to innovation and imagination, creativity does peak in our 20s and 30s. But University of Chicago David Galenson looked at when 300 or so famous artists, poets and novelists made their best work and concluded that experimental artists improve with experience and reach their full potential later in life.
3. Our brainpower will decline – it’s inevitable
Tergesen quotes several recent studies that offer new ways of thinking about cognitive decline – our brains aren’t becoming decrepit; like computer memory, they’re just getting crammed with information – and that show how older brains find new ways to keep learning and growing. What’s more, Tergeson says, the kinds of tests used to evaluate cognitive functioning are not good indicators of real-world performance; older people perform better in the real world because in life, we bring our experience to bear on learning and problem solving. Other research has pinpointed the kinds of activities that can help us stay sharp – not puzzles and computer games, but learning new skills. The bottom line: Get out of your comfort zone. And don’t fall for the “senior moment” stereotype: As Bergquist points out, when we believe ageist notions about older brains, our brains actually work less well.
4. We’re no longer worth hiring
According to Tergesen, 22 percent of American workers are age 55 or older (up from 12 percent in 1992). The idea that we’re less adaptable and productive is pure stereotype, studies show. In fact, in jobs where experience matters, older workers may have more value than younger ones. This includes jobs on the factory floor as well as desk jobs (is that why this factory actually goes out of its way to hire older people?). Tell your boss.
5. We’re gonna get lonely
Yes, our social circles get smaller as we age – but that doesn’t mean we have to be lonely. In fact, Tergesen says, several academic studies show that our friendships generally improve with age, even as those circles shrink. We tend to deepen the more meaningful relationships in our lives and let go of the ones that we find less satisfying. Who needs ’em!
6. Grouchiness comes with the territory
If you haven’t heard that happiness peaks after middle age (at least, in the West), then you haven’t been looking at Facebook and Pinterest; it might be the most often quoted statistic in older circles. Tergesen quotes the studies and looks at why some 90 percent of us grow less depressed and more accepting of life’s vicissitudes as we age.
Ready to battle the stereotypes?