We've all heard the phrase, "perception is reality." Nowhere does this hold more true than for some people's perceptions of aging, what it means to grow "old" and how older age affects them. This is true even for some adults who buy into their own ageism. With the invention of the Internet and the rise of social media, perceptions or "myths" about aging are more stubbornly persistent than factual knowledge based in reality.

The aging process is not a linear, downhill path. There are many positive aspects of aging! Evidence-based scientific research has proven time after time that hard work, effort, determination, and some genetics along with maintaining good physical and mental health and adopting or continuing healthy habits and lifestyle choices you can flourish into old age. Grandma Moses didn't start painting until she was 78. Below are five common misperceptions about aging. It's time to set the record straight!

Everyone eventually becomes old and demented. Forgetting where you put your car keys but later remembering where you set them, or not recalling a friend’s name but later recalling it, is normal aging. Dementia is abnormal aging. Dementia is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. The most prevalent types include Alzheimer’s (over 75 percent clinical diagnosis), Lewy body, frontotemporal and early onset. Of the 6 million people living with dementia, two-thirds are women.

As our society continues to live longer, the risk of developing dementia increases yet it is not inevitable. Avoiding risk factors including obesity and smoking, maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle, having regular mental health checkups, socializing, having a positive outlook, and combining a robust mental and physical fitness regimen can mitigate the onset of dementia by up to 50 percent. Learn something new and difficult each day. And note that having a family member with Alzheimer’s does not automatically mean you will develop it, too.

All older people are the same. At what age and by whose definition is someone “older”? At age 40, you are a protected workplace employee. At age 50, you are eligible to join AARP. At age 59 1/2, you can withdraw funds from your retirement accounts without penalty. Some may be eligible to receive full Social Security at 65, while for others it is 67. Required Minimum Distribution age from a retirement account is 72. Defining “old” is difficult by any societal measure. You are as young as you feel — an 85-year-old can feel much younger than a 55-year-old!

Each generation is spread out by years, sometimes decades. As a result, each generation couldn’t be any more different from the other. Of the seven generations existing today, each was heavily influenced by their culture, genetics, family, peers, socioeconomic status, and society. For example, a Greatest Generation person who was born in 1927 and lived through the Great Depression is vastly different from a Baby Boomer who was born in 1945 and lived through Woodstock!

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Scientific evidence proves our cognitive abilities only slightly decline with normal aging and are not irreversible — with robust, daily effort we can learn and retain new information up until our oldest old age. The key is being open to change and daily challenges, pushing beyond societal limitations, taking good care of our physical and mental health, and stretching our positive growth mindset boundaries daily.
If your older body is aching, don’t make it worse by exercising. Research has proven time and again that a person of any age can benefit from regular, ongoing strength training and mental conditioning to ward off age-related diseases. An aching body or a chronic condition may lead you to believe that exercise is harmful, but studies prove NOT maintaining a consistent, robust physical and mental workout program leads an idle, motionless body into rapid decline including impaired gait (walking), possible dementia, loss of mobility and dependence on others leading to the need for skilled nursing home care. The phrase, “Use it or lose it” is true!

Martial arts have become an increasingly popular mind/body exercise option with an aging population, and exercising both the mind and body is backed by scientific research. Practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu, qi gong, tai chi and yoga are a few ways you can successfully age and maintain your independence.

Older people become depressed because they are, well … old. Buying into our own ageism creates serious, harmful psychological and physical effects. The psychological term “locus of control” refers to having an internal or external sense of control of ourselves and our surroundings. We need to ask ourselves these questions: Do we have internal control where we believe we can improve our life’s outcome based on our decisions, or do we have external control where we don’t feel we have any control?

In reality, most older adults report feeling happier in their later years than in their younger years. Many don’t “feel” their age and often report feeling 10 to 15 years younger than their biological age. Having a positive perception of your own aging really is a state of mind!

Barbara Micheletti, MS is a gerontologist and the founder/CEO of Interrupting Aging, which specializes in helping financial services professionals become experts on aging to better serve the senior community.