Aging happens. Eventually it catches up with all of us. How soon it does can depend on genes, social life, economics, and a dozen other factors.
But there are plenty of things we get wrong about aging: that we are doomed to becoming crotchety, grumpy, sexless incompetents. Science has dispelled a number of these, including the biggest myth of all: that we have no say in how well we age.
1. We turn into spindly weaklings.
Studies show that even women in their 90s can build new muscle, making exercise, especially weight lifting, the closest thing there is to an anti-aging elixir.
All sorts of problems, like falls, accumulation of fat, broken bones, overall frailty can be delayed or prevented by fighting sarcopenia, the wasting away of our muscle mass. You do that by eating more protein, fewer carbs, and lifting weights.
Last April, a multi-national group of experts, writing in the journal Clinical Nutrition, concluded that older, healthy people should get at least 1.0 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day. If you’re lifting seriously, you may need more. And older people usually need more recovery between training sessions, too.
2. Old people are sexless.
Don’t tell that to Joan Price, a 71-year-old sex educator and author who has made it her mission in life to help older people get it on.
It’s true that as levels of our sex hormones decline, and many of us spend years living with one sexual partner, our libidos decline, too. We want sex less often.
But good health and fitness are key to maximizing sex lives at any age, and Price points out that if all the parts are still working, we don’t have to wait for desire. We can kick start it by stimulating ourselves through foreplay or self-touching. The lust will come.
A big advocate for sex toys for older people, Price prefers to call them “tools.” “Just as we put moisturizer on our face, or wear a knee brace if we want to go dancing, why not use one or more tools for good sex?”
Less desire, and less frequent sex, doesn’t mean we don’t want sex at all, or that we find our sex lives less satisfying.
A study published in 2009, in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, used a large sampling of Americans ages 57-85 from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project and found that 41.4 percent of those ages 75-85 who had a sexual partner had sex during the last year. Of those, 54 percent had it 2-3 times per month or more. Over a third of them had oral sex. Overall, older people in relationships seemed pretty satisfied with their intimate lives.
3. We will never find our keys again.
Aging leads to cognitive decline. But just like muscles, our brains respond to exercise and fitness.
Just last month, in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, a French team of scientists reported a study suggesting that “higher levels of aerobic fitness in older women are related to…better cognitive performance.” The same goes for men.
Cardiovascular exercise helps keep our blood vessels supple, improving blood flow to our whole body, including our brains.
4. We’ll become very grumpy.
Wrong. In fact, as a group, older people become more satisfied with life. There’s even a name for this phenomenon: the paradox of well-being.
Of course, it easier to happier and a nicer person if you’re healthy and there’s strong evidence linking health and happiness in old people. Those who exercise tend to be happier. Being social, having friends, helps, too.
5. We will be very, very slow.
Look, old people do slow down. A study of runners from the University of New Hampshire in 2011 showed that older runners (over 60) were slower than younger ones because they had less flexibility, power, and upper body strength.
Here’s the thing, though: Older runners were just as efficient, meaning their strides were just as economical, as younger runners. So while they might not win a marathon, they can keep going and going. In fact, statistics show that older runners have a greater chance of finishing marathons than younger ones, sort of like the tortoise and hare.
Brian Alexander is a frequent contributor to NBC News and a co-author of “The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction.”