Prevention & Recovery

Debunking myths about aging

Photography by John Hryniuk Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by John Hryniuk

Prevention & Recovery

Debunking myths about aging

When you imagine your life in the decades to come, you probably hope you'll maintain your health and independence. The big myth about aging is that physical and mental decline are inevitable. Those myths seem to be perpetuated everywhere we look.

Certainly, at age 70 we are not what we were at 20. Mind you, we do reap the benefits of a lifetime of accumulated wisdom and experience. However, as the baby boomer generation reaches retirement, it's perhaps time all of us – doctors and other health-care providers included – rethink some of our assumptions about aging and the impact of aging on our health-care system. (There, too, we need to separate fact from fiction. The news is better than you think!)

Here are three myths about aging that need to be put to rest.

1. It is normal to have pain as you age.

All too often, people endure all manner of aches and pains, assuming these are a normal part of aging. In fact, such pain is often related to undiagnosed conditions that can actually be prevented or treated effectively. For example, one common cause of joint pain later in life is osteoarthritis, a condition that can be aided by particular kinds of exercise, a variety of supplements and medications, and even joint-replacement surgery. Don't allow yourself – or your aging parent – to accept that aging and pain go hand in hand.

2. It is normal to lose your memory with age.
While we all occasionally forget where we put our keys or cellphones, many people assume they will need to get used to much more serious memory loss as they age. This isn't the case. Most seniors don't develop severe memory loss. They will always be able to exercise good judgment and learn new skills. People who experience more severe memory problems could have a treatable medical condition. We can all help our memories stay sharp by keeping our brains and bodies active. Doing regular exercise and embracing cognitive challenges, such as learning another language or doing Sudoku puzzles, have both been shown to protect against dementia.

3. The aging of the baby boomer generation will put unsustainable strain on our health-care system.
This myth surfaces constantly in public debates about the future of health care in this country. In reality, health-care costs don't go through the roof just because there are more seniors. If usage rates remain constant, the increase in health-care costs caused by aging will happen gradually, at about one percent per year. Even minimal economic growth would easily cushion such a shift.

Why is this? In part, it's because the population shift is a slow one: People only age one year at a time. While seniors spend the most health-care dollars, the growth rate of their spending has actually been lower over the past 10 years than that of younger adults. In fact, health spending has increased because people are using services more often, regardless of age.

So concerns about the sustainability of public health care in the context of an aging population are misplaced – but that doesn't mean our system is perfect. Policy-makers and health-care providers are working hard to transform our health-care system into one that provides the care Canadians need and want, so they can lead full, productive lives in the best of health.

Danielle Martin is a family physician in Toronto and the vice-president of Medical Affairs and Health System Solutions at Women's College Hospital. 

We have lots more advice on dealing with aging. Plus 10 ways you can slow down the aging process.

This content is vetted by medical experts

This story was originally titled "The New Face of Aging" in the October 2013 issue.
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Prevention & Recovery

Debunking myths about aging