Why fears related to aging are common and what you can do about them
Q. I was in a discussion group of women in their 70s who indicated they were afraid of getting older. As one of the
group members, I feel the same way. Our fear was about illness, physical limitations, becoming dependent, dementia, lack of finances and more. I guess we are afraid of old age. What are your thoughts on this? L.G.
Fear of aging is common according to an online survey commissioned by Pfizer. Among over 2,000 participants, 87 percent had at least one fear of aging. Their greatest worry was their decline in physical ability, followed by equal concerns of running out of money and chronic illness with a slightly smaller percent expressing a fear of dying.
For a perspective on aging, here are some facts:
Although some decline in health and functioning is inevitable, it’s possible to live a long life and be healthy.
Older people tend to be happier in later life than in midlife.
The belief we hit our peak in middle age and from there it’s downhill is outdated. (U.S. News and World Report January 20, 2022).
Older people report their health as good or excellent because they can still do things that are most important to them.
Mental health actually improves with age.
Implementing strategies to age successfully may counteract some of the age-related fears. Ruben Castaneda, a reporter selected to participate in the Journalists in Aging Fellowship program, suggested six strategies based on interviews with experts in his Jan. 20, 2022 piece for U.S. News and World Report. I have added additional comments.
Don’t be limited by your age: Continue activities that you love, while adapting to changes in your body and stamina. If you love tennis, consider playing doubles instead of singles. Also, don’t feel you are too old to do something new such as writing a book, taking up a new sport or going back to school. Take reasonable risks and know that being less than excellent is OK. Creativity has no age boundaries.
Continue to learn and grow: We know that learning anything new creates new neural pathways in our brain. Consider exploring a new hobby, an encore career, learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument. Curiosity is one element of successful aging that spurs on continued growth.
Eat a healthy diet: As metabolism slows with age, we need to be aware of caloric intake and balance it with exercise. Learn about the Mediterranean diet which emphasizes fruits, vegetables and whole grains; consider a plant-based diet. Also, be aware of salt and sugar consumption. For food guidelines, go to https://www.bluezones.com/recipes/food-guidelines/ and read the Southern California News Group column by the registered nutritionist, LeeAnn Weintraub.
Exercise: We know exercise builds muscle strength, improves bone density, improves cognition and can lengthen telomere, the caps on the end of DNA strands. Longer telomeres are considered a plus for reducing age-related diseases. And remember to adapt. If running no longer works, consider walking the recommended 150 minutes a week. We know that physical exercise slows the normal aging process.
Stay connected: That means with long-time relationships as well as making new connections. These can occur through volunteering, participating in a faith-based organization, mentoring youth and more. Staying connected may require taking the initiative. We all have had the conversation, “Let’s get together sometime.” We need to make those “getting together moments” happen.
Adapt to losses: This can be most difficult. We can lose a loved one, some short-term memory or just get more tired as we get older. Adaptation and finding substitutes are key in counteracting some of those fears of getting older. How we might adapt to losses could be a topic of conversation with friends, family or in a discussion group. Just addressing a “what if” could allay some of the age-related fears.
Also, we cannot forget sleep: The National Institute of Health reports that people in their 50s and 60s who got six hours of sleep or less were at greater risk of developing dementia. Those who got less rest each night were 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed with dementia compared to those who slept for seven hours.
So, what is the message? We can address some of the fears of aging by being informed and adopting actions and behaviors that are known to enhance our functioning and independence. Knowing we all are mortals is a good reminder to live a life that embraces the gift of time.
Thank you L.G. for your candid question that I believe others are considering. Stay well, consider taking some action to diminish those fears and be kind to yourself and others.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity.