We won’t pretend that getting older is all fun and games (ouch, the knees!), but embracing your age is not just something for the celebs who have the time and money for self-care. There are plenty of things we get wrong about aging, and knowing the truth about common misconceptions can help you stay well longer—and feel great at every age.
The truth: That would be nice, considering that it can be harder to sleep as you get older, but no. “The majority of adults of any age do best with at least seven hours of sleep,” says Catherine Johnson, M.D., founder and medical director of Precision Medical Care in Florida. Regularly getting less can up your risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, depression, and weight gain, according to Mayo Clinic. The problem is, older adults tend to sleep more lightly, take longer to fall asleep, and wake up more often. Dr. Johnson recommends going to bed around the same time every night, doing something relaxing before bed (taking a bath, reading a book, meditating), and wearing a sleep mask, as complete darkness is optimal. Also, keep your bedroom nice and cool. “Sleep is fundamental. If wake up in the morning, work on making lifestyle changes,” Dr. Johnson says.
The truth: Only 1% of people with Alzheimer’s have an inherited form of the disease, says Rebecca Edelmayer, Ph.D., director of scientific engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association. “At age 85, one in three seniors will develop Alzheimer’s dementia, regardless of family history,” Edelmayer says. “So if your relatives tend to live into old age, there’s likely to be more dementia in your family even if there’s no known genetic reason for it.” And you do have control over some risk factors: To improve your odds of avoiding Alzheimer’s, get your blood pressure under control, quit smoking, exercise more, and maintain social connections. “Growing evidence suggests that adopting healthy lifestyle habits may help reduce the risk of cognitive decline,” Edelmayer says. There is also a connection between cardiovascular health and dementia, she adds, so many of the healthy practices that help protect your heart may also protect your brain.
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The truth: We all lose muscle as we age, but we can build muscle at any age too. In fact, in a study from Wichita State University, women ages 63 to 77 were able to achieve significant increases in muscle volume and strength after as little as four weeks of weight training, such as with dumbbells or a kettlebell. Heading off age-related muscle loss, a.k.a. sarcopenia, is critical: Low muscle mass, the prime factor in frailty, can make it hard to maintain your balance, Dr. Johnson says. About 36 million older adults fall every year, resulting in more than 32,000 deaths, per the CDC. But staying active can help you keep muscle and build more. In one study, previously inactive older adults reduced their disability risk just by doing additional moderate exercise such as walking (at least 48 minutes per week provided the greatest benefit). Eating sufficient protein is also key to maintaining muscle—nearly half of adults over 70 don’t get enough.
The truth: While it is more common in women, by age 65 or 70 men are losing bone at the same rate, and it’s a big deal: Breaking a bone is connected to higher risk of death in older adults, says Nicole Didyk, M.D., a geriatrician and an associate clinical professor of medicine at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. When men suffer hip fractures, they are twice as likely as women to die within a year or two. The Endocrine Society recommends that all men 70 and older and higher-risk men over 50 get screened. Bone loss can’t be stopped completely, but quitting smoking, exercising regularly, and getting enough calcium and vitamin D may prevent or slow it.
The truth: On the contrary, nearly two in three adults between 65 and 80 say they are interested in sex, according to the National Poll on Healthy Aging. “We sometimes have this stereotype of older adults as cute asexual beings. But many older adults, like younger adults, have a healthy interest in sex,” says Dr. Didyk. And of those surveyed, 54% of those in a relationship were having sex. That said, older men are more interested in sex than older women, and both genders get less randy as they age further. Body and libido changes that happen over time can lessen interest in or enjoyment of sex. “Women can experience dryness and shrinkage of the vagina or labia. That’s something pretty universal that happens when estrogen levels drop,” Dr. Didyk says. Men, meanwhile, can have a difficult time getting or maintaining an erection. But for older adults who are interested in sex, there are ways to make it better and easier. These include using a water-based lubricant for dryness, taking erectile dysfunction medication, and having sex at times of day when participants have more energy or less pain, Dr. Didyk says.