5 Common Myths About Aging

If you age well, you shouldn't have to worry about becoming frail and senile.

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Think aging is all about losing your memory and becoming hard of hearing? Think again. Many people sail through the aging process without walkers or pacemakers. In fact, researchers now believe it's those age-related diseases—diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's—that leave us frail or disabled, rather than the normal aging of our bodies. Consider this: The vast majority of those who live to be 100 are able to live independently on their own well into their 90's, and about 15 percent of them have no age-related diseases even after they hit the century mark, according to the New England Centenarian Study. Here are some other common myths about aging.

1. Losing those few extra pounds will extend your life. Once you hit 75, carrying a little extra weight can be protective. The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, a 50-year ongoing study involving 3,000 seniors, has shown that older folks who have a body mass index of 27—about 154 pounds for a 5-foot-4 woman—live longer than everyone else, including those with a "healthy" BMI in the range of 19 to 25. It could be that the body needs a little extra fat to provide sufficient energy to the immune system when it's, say, fighting off a flu infection, explains Luigi Ferrucci, who heads the BLSA study, conducted at the National Institute on Aging. He emphasizes, though, that obese individuals who have a BMI above 30 should still work with their doctors to get their weight down.

2. You 'll need a hearing aid. Granted, some hearing loss is quite common with age; as part of the normal aging process, sensory cells within the ear begin to die off. Still, only 35 percent of 80-year-olds actually need a hearing aid, and some folks in their 90s still have perfect hearing. Here's how to guard against hearing loss.

3. You're bound to get crotchety and withdrawn. The BLSA study found that our personalities don't change much after age 30. So, if you're cheerful and gregarious in your 40s, you can expect to be the same in your 80s. Marked personality changes some seniors experience are due not to normal aging but to some related disease like dementia or stroke.

4. Senility is inevitable. Sure, you may forget a word or someone's name here or there, but the senile stereotype of an old person—remember Mr. Magoo?—is a thing of the past. While nearly everyone experiences a certain amount of decline in cognitive abilities as they age, most of us don't have an actual impairment in memory that severely interferes with our ability to live independently well into old age. The unlucky ones who do usually have a memory-robbing disease like Alzheimer's. "I once interviewed a 104-year-old man from Sardinia for a study I was conducting," recalls Ferrucci. "We first spoke on the phone so I could let him know I was coming to see him. When I arrived two hours later, he had composed a poem about me, the man from Tuscany, [incorporating] various details from our previous conversation."

5. You won't have the energy to exercise well in your 80s. Ninety is the new 70. Evidence now suggests that people who take up exercise later in life—say, at age 70—experience improved heart function by lowering their resting heart rate and increasing their heart mass and the amount of blood pumped with each beat. The BLSA study even found a reduction in heart attacks among older men who took up a high-intensity activity like swimming or running. Older exercisers also experience less shortness of breath and fatigue. Here's how to keep up your strength.