The truth about getting older

December 11, 2005|By Kristin Wilson

Does it seem as if those "senior moments" are popping up more and more frequently? And did that last birthday cake look more like a bonfire of candles?

It will happen to everyone one day ? the years will add up and another person will have joined the ranks of "older adults."

But that's no reason to panic. Despite the notions some Americans hold about senior citizens and their disabilities, the aging process doesn't have to come with fears of losing your mind, hearing, sight and just about every other body function.


"In our society, it is true that there is a culture of youth," says Susan MacDonald, executive director of the Washington County Commission on Aging. "The important thing in aging is to age well."

Besides, getting older brings new perspectives and wisdom from life experiences.

"If you talk to people as they age, a lot of times they feel more resilient and they are happier with themselves," MacDonald says.

Here are some common stereotypes about aging and what doctors, researchers and local seniors have to say about them:

"The first thing to go is your mind."

While memory lapses might start to occur on a more frequent basis as humans age, that doesn't mean someone is losing his mind, says Molly Wagster, program director for neuropsychology of aging research at the National Institute on Aging.

"There are many researchers who have documented that there are age-related changes in cognitive function that are normal, that are experienced by many if not all individuals as they get older," she says. What scientists don't know is why brain function diminishes quickly in some individuals, while others stay mentally sharp most of their lives.

One reality of aging of particular interest to scientists and doctors is the "tip of the tongue phenomenon," Wagster says. Sometimes referred to as senior moments, as people age, it generally becomes more difficult to recall information immediately, she explains.

When asked to recall the name of a movie viewed last week or the character in a favorite book, the mind seems to go blank.

"It's not that you can't remember it ever," Wagster says. "There just seems to be more difficulty in producing that information on demand."

Aging affects the speed at which information is processed, and multitasking often becomes more difficult, but none of these developments should be viewed as problems, Wagster stresses.

"We are a little bit slower to remember things and a bit slower to acquire new information," she says. "This is not something that should be problematic for the individual. It's just usually something that people notice."

Doctors and researchers are continuing to study cognitive changes, to see if there is anything that can be done to slow mental deterioration or even reverse it. Early findings indicate that a physically active lifestyle with a diet full of fruits, vegetables and antioxidant foods bodes well for sharper senior minds.

"I will become hard of hearing."

"It is true that we definitely lose hearing as we get older," says Dr. Jarl Wathne, an otolaryngologist with Cumberland Valley Ear, Nose and Throat Consultants in Hagerstown.

Age-related hearing loss can be minimized by limiting exposure to loud noises, Wathne says. Noise damage is irreversible and builds up over the course of a life.

Hearing loss also is affected by genetics and chronic blood vessel-related diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

The good news is that "huge advancements" have been made to make hearing aids more efficient. If you're in the market for a hearing aid, Wathne suggests consulting with an audiologist.

"You can't teach an old dog new tricks."

You can, it just takes a little longer. Verna Anson, 74, believes that seniors are actually the best students because they truly want to learn. Anson is the coordinator for computer classes offered through Berkeley Senior Services in Martinsburg, W.Va. She's seen people in their 90s learn to use computer programs, surf the Web and e-mail family members.

"Everybody is capable of learning at any age," Anson says. "They go at their own speed. We do a lot of repetition and review."

Barbara Horton, 90, of Shepherdstown, W.Va., says that she hasn't lost any desire to keep learning.

"I still think I would enjoy a literature class," she says. She also is looking forward to taking the Internet skills course through the Berkeley Senior Services building.

"I want to know how to reach these www's and look up things that I'm interested in," she says.

The real key to learning later in life is desire, adds Glenn Miller, 76 of Greencastle, Pa.

"People say, 'Oh, I can't do that.' But they find out that they can," Miller says. He's taught himself how to do stock trading online in recent years and enjoys helping other seniors learn what they can do with the computer.

Sometimes it takes a little longer, he admits. But "if you want to do something, you'll get it done."

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