When Americans think about old age, we tend to predict a slowdown, picturing ourselves in rocking chairs or perhaps in front of the television -- which frequently depicts aging as bad and the elderly as ridiculous. Members of the Tarahumara society in Mexico, on the other hand, believe that they gain strength as they age -- and in their 60s remain able to run hundreds of miles while playing a long-distance version of kickball [source: Martinez]. The lesson? The way we view the aging process may very well influence how we ourselves age. Research has linked negative perceptions of aging in people over the age of 50 with an average 7.5-year decrease in life span [source: Peri].
That link could have a huge impact on our population. In 2010, people over age 65 comprised some 13 percent of the U.S. population. That's about 40 million Americans, a number expected to increase to 55 million by 2020. And the number of people ages 85 and older will increase from 5.7 million to 6.6 million over the same period of time [source: Administration on Aging].
But it's not just the media that propagates negative stereotypes about the elderly. These blanket assumptions arise in part from what social scientists call the psychologist's fallacy: judging another person's state of mind based on your own experiences and perspectives [source: Blackwell]. For example, a 40-year old may think his 75-year-old mother will be happy to move in with his family after his father has died. She won't have to worry about keeping up a big, empty house -- and you know how she loves the grandkids. His mother may see it as losing her home and independence, and being tied down with babysitting.
On the other hand, the 40-year-old and the 75-year-old might find a lot of common ground -- they'll never know until they sit down and talk about it.
Over the next 10 pages, we'll try to clarify some of the misconceptions surrounding aging. Our first stereotype looks at what retiring means for today's older adults.
Far from the stereotypical image of being technophobic, sedentary TV watchers, today's older adults are taking advantage of opportunities to stay mentally and physically engaged. For example, in 2010 alone, almost 100,000 people explored international cultures through Elderhostel, an organization that offers enriching travel and educational programs for older adults throughout the world [source: Elderhostel]. And many seniors take part in continuing education programs: The Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, a network of educational programs designed for learners ages 50 and up, has locations in close to 120 campuses throughout the United States [source: Bernard Osher Foundation]. Plus, a growing number of retirement communities are being built near colleges and universities, using access to on-campus classes and enrichment events as a selling point. Some of the facilities give preference to alumni and former professors, who give lectures on the community grounds.
For some older adults, keeping current with new developments is a job requirement. By choice or necessity, more people today continue to work beyond typical retirement ages. By some accounts, over half of those aged 65 to 69 are still in the workforce in the United States [source: BusinessNewsDaily]. This trend is seen in other countries as well, from Great Britain to China.
One of the benefits of these kinds of engagement is socialization, which brings us to our next point.
Humans are born social creatures, and the need for meaningful relationships doesn't diminish with age. If older adults give the opposite impression, it may be because they have increasingly fewer people to relate to as they age. Friends die. Family members move away. Physical and mental impairment can make even short visits an ordeal. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, one in three people in their 60s are chronically lonely, a condition associated with a host of ills from high blood pressure to Alzheimer's disease. Feelings of loneliness do drop with each decade aged afterward -- partially because people's overall satisfaction with their lives, including their relationships, tends to rise after age 50 [source: Edmonson].
Maintaining social relationships reaps numerous rewards. The intellectual challenge of interacting with others has been shown to help maintain information-processing skills, like perceiving spatial relationships between objects [source: HealthDay News]. Moreover, the more people whom an older adult can rely on in times of trouble, and the more varied these relationships, the less stress there will be in that person's life [source: Powell].
But social hour among older adults isn't just coffee klatches and bingo, as our next point explains.
Some people treat older adults like antique autos: They can handle a Sunday drive in the park, but you wouldn't try to get any real work out of them. In other words, they were useful in their prime, but no longer.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. With years of personal skills and professional expertise, older adults are a highly valued volunteer force. Senior Corps, for example, boasts 500,000 members ages 55 and up, meeting community needs that range from mailing newsletters for nonprofits to fostering hard-to-place children [source: Senior Corps]. And older adults who participate in MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnerships advise and encourage high school students in navigating the challenges of school, relationships and career planning.
Older workers can be assets to businesses, too. In surveys, employers have reported that older workers are more reliable and have a stronger work ethic than younger workers. They also take fewer sick days.
And some people blaze history-making trails in later life. American primitivist painter Anna Mary "Grandma" Moses took up the art at age 75 when arthritis made embroidery too difficult. One of her paintings sold for $1.2 million in 2006. And Mary Harris "Mother" Jones hit her stride as a workers' rights activist when she was in her 60s, earning her the title of "the most dangerous woman in America" [source: AFL-CIO].
On the next page, we'll discuss how the generation that sang the '60s anthem "The Times They Are A-changin'" took those words to heart.
Evidence from a number of fronts has shown that older adults are more open to change than the popular image might lead you to believe. For example, the number of people ages 65 and older who use Twitter nearly doubled from 2009 to 2010 [source: Madden]. And more unmarried older couples are choosing cohabitation over marriage compared to previous generations, and even compared to today's younger couples.
On a deeper level, older people tend to have high levels of mental resilience, which is the ability to accept and rebound from adversity [source: Berk]. Being resilient often means giving up self-defeating habits and attitudes, whether it's smoking or self-pity, and adopting new ones. Also, the happiest older adults say that their perspective changed as they realized that their lives were coming to a close; the concerns of their younger days faded and they began focusing on the satisfaction of living in the moment [source: Graham].
It's true: As we age, everything starts to go. The stem cells, from which all body tissue develops, reproduce more slowly. But the loss can be staved off with healthful habits. Weightlifting helps retain muscle and bone [source: Whitbourne]. Aerobic exercise and a low-fat diet improve cardiovascular health, which in turn can prevent certain types of dementia [source: Whitbourne].
Exercising the brain, whether by writing poetry or playing Sudoku, also helps maintain cognitive skills. When some skills do diminish, others may improve to compensate. For example, concentration gets harder and distractibility increases with age. Yet the ability to creatively use information that is acquired in the periphery, during a distraction, may be enhanced [source: Campbell].
However, believing negative stereotypes about aging can sabotage mental capacity. For instance, consider how older characters on television are often portrayed as feeble, forgetful, cranky and confused. Studies have shown a link between the amount of television watched by the aging and their own views on aging: The more TV that older adults watch, the worse they view their own peer group. And the more they buy into that stereotype, the worse they're likely to be at memory recall [source: Donlon]. In other studies, older participants who were told that they could expect to fare worse on memory tests than younger participants did indeed perform more poorly [source: Hess].
The good news regarding older Americans' financial situation is that their average income rose over the decade from 1999 to 2009 while the number of elderly people living in poverty fell. Yet despite these positive trends, a considerable number of older people are struggling. Poverty rates were nearly 20 percent for African-American and Hispanic adults above age 65 during this time period. And among older women living alone, one-third of Hispanics and almost one-half of African-Americans were poor [source: Administration on Aging].
Older Americans' financial future is uncertain. The majority rely on fixed incomes, like Social Security and pensions, yet housing costs, health care costs and life expectancies all continue to rise. For example, some experts recommend that, for economic security, no more than 10 percent of a person's gross income should go to health care expenses [source: Meschede et al]. In 2009, annual health care costs for older adults averaged around $4,800. But the individual median income was only $25,000 , so some older adults might be going without needed tests or prescribed medications [source: Administration on Aging].
On a more positive note, money can't buy love -- which is good news for older adults, because they're not ready to give it up. Read on to learn more.
It's hard for some younger people to think that their parents and even their grandparents are having sex -- and enjoying it. But don't take our word for it. In several comprehensive surveys, older adults described their sex lives in intimate detail. The findings include:
- Positive sexual relationships were found to be associated with overall well-being. Whether one caused the other wasn't clear [source: Law].
- Individuals' sexual activity remained constant until about age 70. Normal changes due to aging and age-related health problems were obstacles in older age [source: University of Chicago].
- While most respondents ages 70 and over said that sex was less important as people age, only about 35 percent said that sex is only for married couples, and less than 10 percent said it's only for the young.
- Of this same group, most felt that their partners find them physically attractive. They praised their partners as loving and gentle, although very few called them exciting or imaginative.
- Women ranked sex as less important to relationships and to overall quality of life than men did. That may be because women are more likely to outlive their spouses, and older widows may feel less interested in starting a new intimate relationship. And older women outnumber older men, leaving fewer potential partners [source: Fisher].
- Most respondents hadn't talked to their doctor about sex since age 50. Researchers think that with better information, older adults might enjoy more rewarding relationships [source: University of Chicago].
It's been said that age brings wisdom. Scientists would agree -- except they call wisdom crystallized intelligence, by which they mean cognitive skills based on knowledge drawn from a lifetime of experience and education [source: Li et al]. The rest of us might call it intuition or a gut feeling.
By any name, this quality supplies a broader base of facts for people to base decisions on. It makes use of information that may seem unimportant to the decision at hand. Crystallized intelligence often compensates for, or complements, the critical thinking skills that typically weaken with age. As a result, older adults often make decisions that prove to be as sound as those made solely by weighing pros and cons and evaluating the reliability of sources.
Crystallized intelligence has its limits; mainly, it's overwhelmed by too much information and too many choices. But studies have shown that when the aging are removed from decisions regarding their own health care or services, they are less likely to benefit from -- or even take advantage of -- these services [source: Medical News Today]. This should come as no surprise: Being left out of important, personal decisions is likely to cause feelings of alienation, regardless of one's age. Some research has suggested a possible solution to this dilemma: In several studies, older people preferred a reasonable but manageable number of choices -- five choices compared to 50, for example [source: Reed].
Our next stereotype takes on another serious issue. In fact, it's a matter of life and death.
Like decision making, this is another stereotype that can't be easily labeled true or false. Older adults are more accepting of death when they feel some sense of control over it. Generally, they want to ensure a "happy" death in a comforting environment, knowing that they're loved and free of unnecessary pain. To one person, that's achieved by making out a living will that specifies the type end-of-life medical treatment he wants. To another, that peace of mind comes from having the option of physician-assisted suicide. But it wouldn't be fair to say that either person wants to die.
To complicate matters, impressions can be deceiving. For instance, older people may talk more about dying as it becomes more and more a reality. Also, grief and depression caused by chronic illness or the loss a spouse can certainly make death seem more welcome. It's the threat of the psychologist's fallacy, projecting your own views to explain someone else's actions.
On our final page, we discuss why there's a lot more to discuss.
After reading the first nine points, you may have reached this conclusion yourself. But it's worth stating: There's a lot we still don't know about old age and the aging process. As people live longer than ever before, science is accruing more data regarding the oldest old, those age 85 and up. It's a good thing, too, because 90-year olds are the fastest-growing age group of the U.S. population [source: U.S. Census]. For example, if we can slow the development of Alzheimer's disease in a 70-year old, will the benefits last when that person is 85 -- or 95? How will the average dietary habits of today's 40-year old impact her 40 years down the road?
While the answers to those questions are still pending, perhaps the wisest attitude regarding aging and older adults comes in these words supposedly given us by Mark Twain: "Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."
Science and medicine is allowing us to live longer and longer. Learn when average life expectancy will hit triple digits at HowStuffWorks.
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