What is more important in determining how well we age — genetics or lifestyle choices?
In their book Successful Aging, authors John W. Rowe, M.D., and Robert L. Kahn, Ph.D., share the results of a 10-year study by the MacArthur Foundation to find out how people can preserve and enhance their mental and physical health in later life. The research shows that the influence of genetics shrinks proportionately as we get older, while social and physical habits become more important to physical and mental health.
MYTH: To be old is to be sick
FACT: Older Americans are generally healthy.
Even in advanced old age, an overwhelming majority have little functional disability, and the proportion of older Americans who are disabled is going down not up. Only about 5 percent of older people live in nursing homes; the remainder live in the community at large.
Throughout the 20th century there has been a shift in the patterns of sickness in the aging population. In the past, acute, infectious illness dominated. Today, chronic illnesses are far more prevalent. But when you compare 65- to 75-year-old individuals in 1960 with those similarly aged in 1990, there is a dramatic reduction in three important precursors to chronic disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and smoking. Also, between 1982 and 1989, there were significant reductions in the prevalence of arthritis, arteriosclerosis, dementia, hypertension, stroke and emphysema, as well as a dramatic decrease in the average number of diseases an older person has at the same time.
MYTH: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
FACT: Research shows that older people can, and do, learn new things – and they learn them well.
The limits of learning and the pace of learning changes, but research on mental function in old age is encouraging, and fears of age-related loss are often exaggerated. Three key factors predict strong mental function in old age – regular physical activity, a strong social support system, and a belief in one’s ability to handle what life has to offer.
MYTH: The horse is out of the barn.
FACT: It’s never too late to benefit from healthy living.
Many older people believe that there is no point in changing bad habits. They think, for example, that decades of overindulgence in alcohol or fat-laden food, or lack of exercise, has already taken its toll on their body and that the subsequent damage is irreversible. Certainly, it’s better to start healthy habits early, but the truth is, it’s almost never too late to benefit from healthy living. Not only can we recover much lost function and decrease risk, but in some cases we can actually increase function beyond our prior level.
The secret to successful aging is to choose your parents wisely.
FACT: Heredity is not as powerful a player as many assume.
For all but the most strongly determined genetic diseases, such as Huntington’s disease, environment and lifestyle have a significant impact on the likelihood of actually developing the disorder. This is good news for people with strong family histories of some cancers, heart disease, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis and many other conditions. We now know that diet, exercise and even medications can delay, or completely eliminate, the emergence of the disease.
MYTH: The lights may be on, but the voltage is low.
FACT: Chronological age itself is not the critical factor in sexual activity or physical intimacy.
While sexual activity does tend to decline with age, there are tremendous individual differences in this intimate aspect of life. In part, these differences are determined by cultural norms, health or illness, and the availability of sexual or romantic partners. As in so many other aspects of aging, chronological age itself is not the critical factor in sexual activity or physical intimacy. The basic human need for affectionate physical contact, which is apparent even in newborn infants, persists throughout life. The voltage is never too low for that – in fact, it may help keep the lights on.
MYTH: The elderly don’t pull their own weight.
FACT: One third of older people work for pay, one third work as volunteers in churches, hospitals and other organizations, and many others provide much-needed assistance to family members, friends and neighbors.
The widespread belief that older people are relatively unproductive in society is wrong and unfair. Our national statistics on productivity, because they focus on paid work, ignore a great deal of productive activity in older people. Millions of older people are ready, willing and able to increase their productivity, both paid and voluntary. In fact, one third of older people work for pay, one third work as volunteers in churches, hospitals and other organizations, and many others provide much-needed assistance to family members, friends and neighbors. It would take three million paid caregivers, working full time, to provide that assistance to sick and disabled people!