According to Sarah H. Kagan, PhD, RN, the idea of aging is not simply to live longer, but to live happier and healthier as well. As a Lucy Walker Honorary Term Professor of Gerontological Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing, her goal is to help the aging community to do just that.
During her recent presentation on “Debunking the Common Myths of Aging” at a lunchtime workshop offered to Penn faculty and staff, Dr. Kagan explained that one way to live longer, happier, and healthier lives is to change the way that we think about aging. We must discredit the stigma that our age defines who we are, how we act, and what we are capable of. There is a common misconception that “the older you get the more invisible you get,” however, this notion is quickly taking a positive turn for older Americans in this recent longevity revolution. With the still-evolving science around what is “normal aging,” we are finding that many conditions and behaviors that we associate with getting older may actually be epigenetic diseases rather than aging-related diseases.
Epigenetic diseases are those that are influenced by a variety of non-genetic factors such as geographic location, personal habits, and other environmental factors. For example, an individual does not necessarily lose their ability to hear simply because of their age, but rather due to a variety or combination of other factors in their life such as frequent attendance at rock concerts or years of working around heavy machinery. Aging also often takes all of the stereotypical blame for wrinkles and grey hair when the true culprits such as UV exposure and a variety of genetic factors actually play major roles in these physical changes.
Dr. Kagan also explained how ageism, the stereotyping of individuals based on their age, is the same as any other form of discrimination. Not every senior becomes frail, experiences memory loss or needs a caregiver but society often forgets that. However, it is not only the younger generations that are guilty of this. Self-stereotyping is a huge issue as well. Older individuals need to stray away from the “I’m too old for that” mindset. After all, an individual’s aging experience is significantly influenced by how they think about it.
With that said, Dr. Kagam shared that for the most part, the aging community is actually a generally happy on despite the “old and grumpy” stereotype. She explained it as a “U-shaped curve.” Our level of happiness is very high at a young age, decreases around midlife, and increases again as we enter the “last half” of our lives. This level of happiness tends to be higher in those who maintain healthy social relationships, and at a population level, those with closer relationships tend to live longer.
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