By Danna Downing
For many persons contemplating their retirement, the path ahead is littered with misconceptions and fear of the unknown. According to Peter A. Lichtenberg, Ph.D., director of the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University in Detroit, there are three beliefs that drive fear and misunderstanding about aging:
Belief #1: Aging is primarily a period defined by loss and decline.
The research shows otherwise. The facts are that age-related cognitive changes most often do not appear until a person’s eighties. We all slow down, but that is one of the gifts of retirement and makes space for creating a new chapter in life. Reductions in reaction time and processing speed can be accommodated with adjustments to our driving and scheduling behaviors. On the positive side of the equation, research demonstrates that agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability actually improve with age. In addition, older adults trend toward becoming more positive in their sense of well-being and overall life satisfaction.
Belief #2: Changes that come from aging are beyond a person’s control.
Age-related changes are definitely not beyond our control. Neural and behavioral studies clearly show that plasticity (the ability to change and adapt over the course of a lifetime) will increase with physical exercise and cognitive challenges. Increased physical activity and strength training will improve balance and slow muscle weakness and frailty. Cognitive training can reverse or slow losses of memory. Such training can be enhanced by doing puzzles, playing games, or practicing problem-solving in daily life. Driver training programs for older adults can improve safety on the road and build confidence to strengthen driving skills and extend the number of driving years for older adults.
Interestingly, the biggest barrier to healthy aging is a person’s own view of the aging process. Negative stereotypes about aging in our minds and in our living environment can negatively affect longevity and quality of life.
Belief #3: Age-related changes are permanent and irreversible.
Memory, problem solving, and visual and spatial attention all improve with training or rehabilitation. Most older adults recover from strokes and falls after one year.
In summary, the research paints a brighter picture for aging than most believe is possible. However, it is incumbent on older adults, their families, health professionals and communities to do their part to take what is known and apply it to their world for what is needed to improve healthy aging. That could include taking action at all levels of a community. For individuals it could be as simple as taking a walk each day or doing chair exercises. For health professionals it could mean reminding older adults of the positive aspects of aging and helping them create healthy lifestyles. For communities it involves making sure older adults have access to good healthcare, healthy food, and safe housing. For municipalities, it might mean accessible sidewalks and recreation facilities. Together we all have a role to play in improving the aging process for older adults and ourselves.
So, the lesson for this month is that aging can be better than we may think, especially if we all work together to make it that way.
Danna Downing is a member of the Kalamazoo County Older Adults Advisory Council and the Michigan State Advisory Council on Aging. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Danna Downing