Debunking the Myths of Aging
There's a lot of truth to that old saying that age is just a number.
"While there are many changes in the body that we expect to see as people age, there is a lot of variation from person to person," says Ryan Bartkus, MD, a physician who works with UW Health in the Geriatrics Clinic and Geriatrics Assessment Clinic. "You'll see 55- and 60-year-olds who are quite sick and who function like 80-year-olds, and you'll also see 90-year-olds who are running marathons and even playing hockey."
It all comes down to genetics, family history and how you lived your life up to this point, Bartkus says. But how you approach the years ahead also makes a difference. Don't let common myths about aging keep you from making the most of your senior years.
Myth: Forgetfulness is Normal
Truth: It's normal to see some memory changes, such as an increased delay in remembering names or words or difficulty processing new information, Bartkus says.
"As long as it comes back to you or you respond well to cues or hints, that's usually pretty reassuring," he explains. "But long-term memory should stay intact. We get worried when we see rapid decay of information, like when you talk about something and it's gone in five minutes, or when there's a change in function. When someone is having problems doing previous functions, such as shopping, balancing a checkbook or driving, that usually indicates a problematic issue like dementia."
Memory loss can be exacerbated by poor sleep or nutrition, depression, certain medications, and hearing or vision loss. "It doesn't take a lot of hearing loss to affect memory decline because you don't have that brain stimulation," Bartkus says.
But there are also things you can do to stave off memory loss. Research shows that exercise can prevent memory changes and slow down mental decline in patients with dementia. You can also stimulate your brain by socializing with family and friends, reading, doing puzzles or trying other novel experiences (Bartkus's dad is partial to the music rhythm video game Guitar Hero). Controlling other chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, can also help minimize cognitive changes.
Myth: Arthritis is Inevitable
Truth: Arthritis affects 1 out of 5 adults in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it becomes more common as people age. "A lot of it is the accumulated wear and tear of living 70, 80 years. Even in the healthiest people we can see pretty significant arthritis," Bartkus says.
But there are things you can do to prevent arthritis or make it more tolerable. Controlling your weight is key. "Even one extra pound puts a lot of extra stress on our joints, especially our knees," Bartkus says.
It's also important to stay physically active. "While it's true that exercise can put some stress on joints, it also builds up the muscles around the joints. We often refer patients to physical therapy to build up muscles to reduce load on the joints and reduce the pain," he says.
If you're struggling with arthritis-induced pain, over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen, topical medications and joint injections with steroids can help.
Myth: Seniors Shouldn't Exercise or Have Sex
Truth: Exercise and sex are encouraged and can boost your quality of life. Try to get 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week, plus 30 minutes of strength training at least twice a week, Bartkus says.
"Moderate" varies from person to person, but the goal is to get your heart rate up and breathe more heavily. Good options include walking, jogging (if it's not too painful), bicycling and water aerobics (especially good for those with arthritis or joint pain from excess weight). Tai chi is great for developing balance, which can help seniors avoid falling-related injuries.
Of course, sex is another way to increase your heart rate. Age-related physical changes, such as erectile dysfunction in men or vaginal dryness in women, can make sex more difficult, but your doctor can recommend medications or over-the-counter products that can help.
Myth: Weight Gain is Unavoidable
Truth: You aren't necessarily doomed to put on more pounds as you age, but some flabbiness is to be expected. "As we age, our muscle density decreases and the space in the muscle is replaced with fatty or fibrous tissue, so the muscles seem more flabby," Bartkus says.
There are mixed opinions in the medical community about what to do if you're entering your senior years overweight. While reducing your weight can help with arthritis and improve your health in other ways, new research shows that even obese seniors shouldn't lose too much weight.
"There's some thought that it's actually OK to be on the heavier side. Some studies show that our older patients do better when in a target range that might be seen as mildly obese in younger patients," Bartkus says. Be aware of uncontrolled weight loss, which can indicate other health problems.
"Weight extremes on either side are bad, but there's a happy medium," he explains.
Myth: Seniors Need a lot of Medications
Truth: "A lot of seniors expect they'll end up on 10 medicines or more and assume that being on a lot of medicines is a good thing, and that can lead to a lot of problems," Bartkus says.
There's also a misconception that supplements and over-the-counter medications are safe, but that's not always true. Even common medications such as Benadryl and ibuprofen are on the list of medications that are potentially harmful to older patients.
"Benadryl is very common and does its job very well, but it can really sedate people and cause increased risks of falls. And in elderly folks who have memory problems, it can worsen memory issues and in extreme cases cause acute delirium," Bartkus explains.
Research shows that ibuprofen can worsen heart disease, raise blood pressure, harm the liver and kidneys, and in those with memory loss, cause confusion and delirium.
"We try to avoid it as a front-line medicine," Bartkus says. "Usually we'll have people try Tylenol, ice packs and heating packs for pain relief. Controlled weight loss can also really help with aches and pains."
Whatever your health situation, it's important to stay up to date on routine care (including screening tests for colon and breast cancer and flu and pneumonia vaccines) and be a strong advocate for your health.
"The medical system can sometimes lose track of what a patient is trying to achieve," Bartkus says. "Make sure you speak up and make your wishes known, and your doctor can help you come up with a plan to help you meet those goals."
Follow UW Health
Date Published: 01/15/2016