Faculty voice:

Amanda Toler Woodward: We need to talk about aging

July 13, 2016

Amanda Toler Woodward is an associate professor in the MSU School of Social Work. Her goal is to share reflections on a wide range of topics related to aging research, social work, academia and whatever else catches her fancy. Learn more about her and read her other blogs on her website.

Birds do it, bees do it, and I hate to break it to you, we do it, too. I’m aging as I type this. You’re aging as you read it. If we’re both lucky we’ll keep aging until we are . . . gasp . . . . old! More and more of us are doing just that and more and more of us are not happy about it. 

Professor Erdman Palmore first published the Facts on Aging Quiz in The Gerontologist in 1977 to help people recognize negative stereotypes and prejudices about older adults. He is still working to educate people about the facts and fighting ageism today. Sadly, his quiz is still relevant. Whenever I share it with students and other smart people there are always surprises and interesting conversations.

Before you continue reading, take an updated version of the quiz here. (No cheating! Some of the answers are given below.)

Here are my reflections on a few of the questions.

The majority of people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease. 

FALSE

About 11 percent of adults aged 65 and older and 32 percent of those 85 and older have Alzheimer’s disease. It is the 7th leading cause of death according to the Alzheimer’s Association and yet much more feared than other diseases that are more prevalent.

Our fear may be because there are no good treatment options, even diagnosis can be difficult, and the progressive nature of the disease connects to fears of losing our independence and our identity. Increased public awareness probably fuels this fear and contributes to the perception that Alzheimer’s disease is synonymous with old age.

The fear of Alzheimer’s may interact with anxieties about aging in general.

It’s true that the risk of Alzheimer’s increases with age, but let’s look at those numbers again. Eleven percent of adults aged 65 and older. One-third of those 85 and older. Most of us won’t get Alzheimer’s. It’s not an inevitable part of aging – it’s a disease process and references to “old-timer’s disease” is flat out ageist.

It is very difficult for older adults to learn new things.

FALSE

Old dogs can learn new tricks. One of the prevailing ageist stereotypes (and perhaps the current poster child for this myth) is that older adults can’t and don’t want to learn new technology. Balderdash. There is plenty of research to show that older adults can and do learn and use all sorts of new technology. Just like all other age groups, some people do it for fun, some people do it for a particular purpose and some people would rather not do it at all. But they can, if they so choose.

Personality changes with age.

FALSE

This is one of my biggest pet peeves. I was hanging out before a class at the gym one day and for some reason it came out that I do aging research. “Maybe,” one woman said, “you can tell me why old people are so mean and crabby” and then went on to tell us tales of her aging mother. When I could get a word in edgewise I told her that old people aren’t mean and crabby. Mean and crabby people get old.

If anyone’s personality really changes and they’re not just having a bad day (and notice I said anyone’s, not an older person’s) there’s probably some underlying cause. Maybe there’s a health issue, a medication side effect, a cognitive change or a mental health problem. It’s not because they’re old and if you treat them like that’s the problem then they are justifiably crabby – more power to them.

Clinical depression occurs more frequently in older adults than younger people.

FALSE

Old age is not any more depressing than any other time of life.

Physical strength declines in old age. 

Okay, this one is TRUE.

Age-related muscle mass, strength and function start to decline around the age of 45 (as I can personally attest) at a rate of about 1 percent a year. But . . . you know what’s coming, don’t you? . . . exercise can restore muscle strength and I know plenty of people older than me who have way more stamina and strength than I do. I’ll see you all later at the gym.

So how’d you do on the quiz and what facts surprised you the most? Start listening for ageing myths and I bet you’ll hear them everywhere. What are some of the most outrageous you’ve come across?

Reprinted from permission from Spartan Ideas

Photo by G.L. Kohuth