Embracing Age: Debunking Myths and Dispelling Fears About Aging

Katerina Niemann and Karina Agadzhanyan

The prospect of aging often instills fear, particularly among the younger generation as they cannot imagine a life of immobility, illness, and dependence. However, many of these commonly held stereotypes about aging are not entirely accurate, and the reality of growing older isn’t as daunting as portrayed by the media. In fact, numerous wonderful aspects of aging are overlooked. If you remain unconvinced that this stage of life is beautiful, perhaps you can be convinced to adopt measures that transform aging into a less intimidating and more empowering process. Join us as we navigate the nuanced landscape of aging, debunk myths, and explore proactive approaches to enhance the aging experience.


Yes, it is true that as we age, we experience some changes in our memory. Speed of processing, episodic memory, working memory capacity, prospective memory, and speed of recall all start to decline; it is essential to understand the nuanced nature of these shifts. To put it simply, working memory, the conscious element of our thinking process, undergoes alterations as we age. As we age, retrieving information from long-term memory and maintaining multiple items in working memory becomes more time-consuming. According to the Cognitive Resources Theory, this slowdown is attributed to a decrease in mental resources available for quick use as we age (Park, 2000). However, there is no need for excessive concern. As we age, we develop adaptive strategies to enhance some types of memories. For example, we implement tools that counteract worsening prospective memory (memory for performing or carrying out future-oriented intentions), such as using calendars or placing keys in a designated spot. Such behavior aligns with the Selective Optimization and Compensation Model (Baltes, 1997; Baltes & Baltes, 1990; Freund & Baltes, 2000), which states that older adults are aware of changes in their cognitive and physical capabilities and proactively engage in activities that leverage their strengths. In addition, our associate memory—the ability to bind two unrelated items—worsens as we age as well. However, we counteract this by utilizing responsible remembering—i.e. strategically remembering things based on subjective importance. For example, not remembering a grandchild’s favorite food but remembering their allergies (Murphy, Hoover, et al., 2023) or remembering the most important words in a foreign language before traveling (Murphy et al., 2023)


 Although it might take older adults a little bit more time to learn something new, it is arguable that older adults may be even better at learning than young adults. For example, older adults are very good at utilizing gist-based memory—with age, our brains get better at selecting and focusing on important information while filtering out unnecessary details (Hasher & Zacks, 1988).

When delving deeper into the concept of selectivity in memory and learning, research has shown that older adults prioritize remembering more valuable information while potentially forgetting less valuable information (Castel et al., 2012). Older adults, being aware of their limited memory capacity, actively choose to remember important things by constantly building schemas (organized categorization performed by our brains to interpret the world), grouping, and refining their memory processes, and this process improves as we age. For example, every time we must pack for a trip, we become more adept at remembering the important things to pack like passports, smartphone chargers, and medications. By the time we reach older ages, we have amassed a wealth of schemas that make remembering simpler.

Moreover, older adults are more inclined than younger adults to learn information that holds personal relevance or intrinsic interest. According to the Selective Engagement Theory, older adults have better memory when intrinsically motivated. This suggests that as we accumulate life experiences, we refine our learning strategies by identifying what knowledge holds value for us in a specific circumstance (Knowlton & Castel, 2022).


Although illnesses may become more common with age, it is crucial to recognize that they don’t necessarily impede everyday life. In fact, the majority of older adults lead healthy and independent lives. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (2019), only 23.5% of individuals aged 65 and older (non-institutionalized) report being in poor to fair health, which means that the significant majority have relatively good health in their later years. Additionally, the aging population is on the rise as people are living longer due to technological and medical advancements reducing the negative effects of diseases, and continued research aiding in healthy diet/lifestyle choices (Kirkwood, 2017).  

On the topic of health, a prevalent stereotype associates aging with unhappiness due to the perception of nearing life’s end. Contrary to this belief, research suggests a different narrative. On average, happiness (measured as an individual’s overall satisfaction in life) tends to peak at around 20 years old, experiences a dip at around 50, and then begins to rise again, reaching its next peak at around 80 (Stone et al., 2010). The Socioemotional Selectivity Theory proposed by Carstensen in 1993 claims that as we age, awareness of mortality prompts us to prioritize happiness, positivity, and doing what brings fulfillment—a luxury that younger and middle-aged adults may not fully appreciate.


It is never too late to adopt healthy habits, as many aspects of our well-being are reversible or can be slowed down. For example, some may say, “I’ve been smoking for 40 years, quitting now won’t make a difference.” In reality, ceasing smoking can lead to significant immediate improvements, reducing the risk of cancer, heart attack, stroke, and lung disease. It also enhances blood circulation and revitalizes the senses of taste and smell (National Institute on Aging, 2019).

It is also never too late to start exercising. A study showed that older adults who were instructed to walk 40 minutes a day, three days a week, experienced a remarkable 2% increase in the volume of their hippocampus—the part of the brain crucial for memory—when typically, hippocampal decline occurs at about 1% per year after the age of 50 (Erickson, 2011). It is worth noting that this improvement has been observed in older adults, as younger adults do not yet face hippocampal decline (Castel, 2018). Still, it is incredible what a small amount of daily cardio exercise can do.


It is important to understand aging stereotypes because they have a much larger effect than most people may think. Foremost among these is the perception of ageism, a form of discrimination rooted in prejudiced attitudes toward individuals based on age, predominantly targeting older adults (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). Because people, whether consciously or subconsciously, hold these stereotypes, they often tend to treat older adults differently. Being treated as less important or weak harms self-esteem while instilling fear of the aging process.

Another effect of stereotypes is poorer test performance in laboratory or clinical settings. Rylee and colleagues (2015) sought to explore this phenomenon, both in its immediate and enduring effects. Their research revealed that older adults exposed to subliminal negative age stereotypes before memory tests exhibited poorer performance and heightened cardiovascular stress compared to those without exposure. It was also found that over time, individuals who held more negative age stereotypes showed significantly worse memory performance compared to those who held less negative aging perceptions (Rylee, 2015).

This phenomenon, known as the stereotype threat, underscores the detrimental impact of stereotypes on cognitive function. The stress of the stereotype causes greater cognitive load, diminishing cognitive resources available for task performance. In clinical settings, when performing memory assessments, older adults grapple with the weight of societal expectations regarding age-related memory decline. When hearing the word “memory,” they immediately get anxious about their results and potential implications, which as mentioned earlier, can lead to performance deficits (Castel, 2018).


So, what can we do about it? Researching negative stereotypes that you may hold—and seeing how true or false they are—can help you treat older adults how they should be treated: no condescension! But going beyond that, avoiding stereotypes can weaken the negative influences in laboratory and clinical settings and possibly older adults’ heightened motivation to seek medical attention when needed. Doctors should try to reword their exams to make them less stressful for older adults, perhaps calling memory tests “wisdom tests.” Encouraging older adults in your life to prioritize visits to healthcare professionals is crucial, but it is equally important to empower them to feel in control of their healthcare decisions. Respect their autonomy and involve them in the decision-making process regarding their health journey. Finally, technology is an essential part of society in North America, but there is a huge digital age divide. Supporting older adults in navigating technology is essential, and it is important to approach this assistance with patience and understanding.

There are also many simple things you can do for yourself as you age. Finding a purpose is very important. Many older adults actively support their families in various ways. Whether babysitting grandchildren or assisting busy family members, they play a crucial role in maintaining familial bonds. Even those without immediate family find purpose in volunteering, contributing to the well-being of the next generation. In a Netflix documentary ‘Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones,’ explorer, author, and producer Dan Buettner—who has been exploring the world’s blue zones (geographic areas with lower rates of chronic diseases and a longer life expectancy)—identified four components for living a long and fulfilling life. One of them is maintaining a sense of purpose—waking up with a clear objective. Older adults who volunteer or spend time with friends and family report feeling a profound sense of community and purpose, potentially promoting their longevity (Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, 2023).

Keeping active is crucial, especially in older years. The brain requires a lot of blood oxygen to function, so engaging in cardio exercises that promote increased brain blood flow is highly beneficial. Another component of Dan Buettner’s secret to a long life is moving naturally—simply walking instead of driving or dancing while doing daily routine, can add to longevity (Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, 2023).

Another easy thing that keeps the mind and body sharp is learning challenging things, such as a new instrument or skill. As Alan Castel, an expert in memory, attention, cognition and cognitive aging, wrote in his book Better With Age, “Discomfort and frustration means you are challenging yourself [and helps] preserve brain networks that support attention and memory” (Castel, 2018).

Lastly, keeping a positive attitude is crucial. Older adults who hold positive beliefs about aging are 19% less likely to develop dementia than those with negative beliefs (Levy, 2016). So, the moral of the story is that aging is a beautiful process packed with wisdom and happiness. Keep exercising, keep learning, spend time with those you love, and stay positive. As Dan Buettner said, “The things that allow us to live a long and healthy life are things that make life worth living” (Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, 2023). If you’re younger, listen to older adults’ stories and wisdom; as much as you think you know, they know it all and more (with the exception of smartphones).


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