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Health Information The Truth Behind Age-Old Myths

Although you're entering your "golden years," you may worry that being an older adult actually means you'll have more tarnish than shine.

But a lot of the things people fear about growing older aren't necessarily true, says Gabriela Baeza, MD, a family medicine physician at Rush University Medical Center. "You do go through changes in your 70s and beyond. But many of the adverse effects of aging that people assume are inevitable are not."

Here, Baeza addresses some common myths related to aging and offers advice on things you can do to stay healthy, vibrant and sharp as you age.

Myth: Exercise isn't safe for older adults.

Though many people believe this, the opposite is true. Studies have shown that lack of physical activity raises your risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions. And it can result in more doctor visits and hospitalizations.

Take control: Regular, moderate physical activity keeps your heart and lungs strong and helps you manage stress. And weight-bearing exercises — especially walking — improve both bone health and balance. "Having strong bones and good balance can mean fewer falls," Baeza says. "That's vital, because falls can be devastating for seniors."

Note: If you're embarking on an exercise program for the first time, talk with your doctor to determine the best regimen based on your general health and health conditions.

Myth: You won't have sex anymore.

"Unless you have a serious health condition that makes vigorous cardiovascular activity risky, you can enjoy an active sex life at any age," Baeza says.

Take control: It's true that some seniors experience physical or emotional issues that affect their ability to have or enjoy sex. But many problems can be addressed to make sex possible, and pleasurable, again.

For instance, over-the-counter lubricants and prescription vaginal estrogen therapy can help with vaginal dryness. There are many treatments for erectile dysfunction and low testosterone in men, and testosterone patches can improve sexual response in women.

Trying different positions can also lessen sexual discomfort caused by arthritis or other age-related conditions. "I know it can be embarrassing to discuss sexual problems with your doctor," Baeza says. "But we're here to listen — and often, our suggestions can help."

Myth: Older adults need much less sleep.

It's true that older adults need less sleep than younger adults — but only 30 to 60 minutes less. "Seniors shouldn't skimp on sleep," Baeza says. "You should still get six to seven hours of sleep a night."

Take control: If you're not sleeping well, there can be many culprits, from poor sleep habits (e.g., irregular bed and wake times, daytime napping) to chronic health issues. Certain medications, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine can also cause loss of sleep.

If sleeplessness is affecting your health or your ability to enjoy life, you may need to see a sleep specialist.

Myth: You'll feel lonely and isolated.

It's understandable for seniors to feel forlorn, especially if they've lost a significant other or live far from family. But your social life doesn't have to dwindle as you age. In fact, you may have more time and energy to devote to relationships than when you were working full-time and raising kids.

Take control: "There are many opportunities for older adults to meet people — through a faith community, by joining a book club or gym, by taking a class or volunteering," Baeza says.

"And membership programs for seniors, like our own Rush Generations, offer a variety of engaging social activities. Getting involved can also help you feel more energized and connected to your community."

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