Ageing truths and ageing myths


1st Jan 2015 Wellbeing

Ageing truths and ageing myths

Are fragile bones really an inevitable part of ageing? What about bad posture or a decreased sex drive? You might be surprised by the 'ageing facts' that are really ageing myths. 

Creaky, achy joints are an inherent part of ageing

creaky achy joints

A more accurate statement would be that creaky, achy joints are an inevitable part of not exercising.

Researchers from the University of Kuopio in Finland studied 55 men and 226 women aged 55 to 75 undergoing knee operations for osteoarthritis, and calculated their lifetime of physical exercise, compared with 524 people selected at random from the local population.

After taking account of factors such as age, weight, physical work stress and past knee injuries, they found that the higher someone's cumulative hours of exercise, the lower their risk of osteoarthritis of the knee severe enough to require surgery.

'Moderate recreational physical exercise is associated with a decrease in the risk of knee osteoarthritis,' they concluded.



Fragile bones and a bent posture are inevitable with age

woman joint pain

Very little is inevitable with age except death. While osteoporosis is definitely a condition that's more prevalent in older people, it's also one that's very preventable.

A study of 424 female centenarians found that only 56 percent had osteoporosis, and their average age at diagnosis was 87.

That's not bad, particularly considering that these women grew up long before we understood the benefits of diet and exercise on bone.



Your genes decide how well you'll age

adult twins

If that were the case, then identical twins would age identically. But they don't.

A major study from European and American researchers evaluated the lifestyle habits and medical history of 40 pairs of identical twins aged 3 to 74.

As the twins aged, the researchers found, their genome changed from identical to one that showed several differences. Genetically speaking, the oldest pair of twins was the least alike.

How so? It all goes back to the 'nature vs. nurture' argument. You might be born with the healthiest set of genes nature can provide, but how you live your life (the nurture part) determines how those genes behave over the next 90 years.

It turns out that what you eat, how much physical activity you get, even your exposure to chemicals can change your genes through methylation—a process that plays an essential role in maintaining cellular function (changes in methylation patterns may contribute to the development of cancer).



You lose your creative potential as you age

creative retiree

Don't tell that to Gene Cohen, MD, PhD, who directs the Centre on Ageing, Health, and Humanities at George Washington University in Maryland. Dr Cohen, who is in his 60s, started a second career as a game-maker a few years ago.

Such creativity offers tremendous benefits for older people, he's found. For the past decade, he and his colleagues have been studying the impact of art and music participation on older adults.

In one study of 168 healthy older adults, those who joined a choral group were in better health, used less medication, were less lonely and had fewer falls after a year than a similar group of non-singers.

Participation in the arts increases people's confidence, sense of self-worth, self-reliance and involvement in social activity.



You become less interested in sex as you age

less interest in sex


Impotence and reduced libido aren't related to age, but to medical conditions that can, in most instances, be prevented, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and depression. Something as simple as lifting weights a couple of times a week can improve your sex life.

Sexuality in later life has received limited attention from researchers. But according to surveys including more than 1,500 people, published in the British Medical Journal, older people are increasingly reporting an active—and fulfilling—sex life.

Over 30 years, researchers from Gothenburg University in Sweden questioned groups of 70-year-olds about their sex lives.

Between the first sample, in 1971, and the last, in 2000, the proportion saying that they had sexual intercourse increased among all groups: married men from 52 per cent to 68 per cent, married women from 38 to 56 percent, unmarried men from 30 to 54 percent, and unmarried women from 0.8 to 12 percent.

People who reached 70 in the later samples also reported higher satisfaction with their sex lives and fewer sexual dysfunctions, and the number of women reporting having orgasms increased.



Your brain shrinks with age

brain shrinks

This myth began with studies in 2002 showing that the part of the brain that controls memory, the hippocampus, was significantly smaller in older people than in younger people. Yet groundbreaking research conducted in the 1990s by Dr Lupien showed that chronic stress shrinks the hippocampus.

Was it age or stress shrinking the brains of older people? Probably stress.

When she examined brain scans of 177 people aged 18 to 85 she found that 25 percent of the 18 to 24-year-olds had hippocampus volumes as small as those of adults aged 60 to 75.

Her point is that perhaps 'the smaller hippocampus in the older person was already there when they were younger, possibly as a result of stress'.

In fact, other research she has conducted found that people born during the world wars have smaller hippocampuses than those born between the two wars; the likely reason is that those born during the wars were exposed to so much stress early in life.



Older people are cranky and unhappy

happy old women

Not quite. When researchers from Heidelberg, Germany, interviewed 40 centenarians, they found that despite significant physical and mental problems, 71 percent said they were happy and more than half said they were as happy as they'd been at younger ages.

Plus, when the researchers compared them to a group of middle-aged people, they found that both groups were just as happy. Most importantly: nearly 70 percent of the centenarians said they laughed often.

So what does it all mean? That there is no universal definition of ageing. How you'll age is entirely up to you—starting today.