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Aging: Myths and Realities
Part One

Joseph A. Ilardo, PhD, LCSW

One of the most disconcerting things about being the adult child of elderly parents is not knowing what to expect next. A certain degree of decline in physiological and psychological functioning is normal as a person ages. However, many adult children and caregivers are not sure what they should be concerned about and what need not be a cause for concern.

Most of us, including medical professionals, have far more questions than answers. This lack of concrete information unfortunately results in myth-making and the acceptance of hearsay opinions that are passed on as fact.

What is considered "normal" aging? What is "abnormal"? For example, when is it advisable to recommend that an elderly person undertake an age-appropriate exercise program? When should exercise be avoided? Does a lapse of memory point to the beginnings of dementia or some form of Alzheimer's? Or is some memory loss benign?

These and many similar questions have occurred to every conscientious adult child and caregiver. Fortunately, there is an increasing body of information available on the topic of aging. By turning to it, it is possible to answer many such questions. Most important, the information is highly reliable. It is safe to base decisions on it, because the research data are the result of a systematic, high quality, nationally coordinated, long-term study of aging.

Over the past few decades, a carefully planned, nationwide research project has been undertaken to learn about the physical and psychological effects of aging. Sponsored by the National Institutes of Health with primary participation by the University of Baltimore, the project (called the Baltimore Project by Gerontologists) has begun to yield important information with immediate practical implications for older adults and their families.

In a two-part article, we'll take a look at what the research shows about the physiological effects of aging. I will present some of the popular myths about aging and then refute them with the evidence taken from current research findings.

One popular myth is that the frailty of old age is irreversible, because muscles lose their ability to respond to training.

The facts are more complex than that. While it is true that there is a loss of muscle mass as one ages, there is no diminution in the muscles' ability to respond to training. In other words, while there may not be as many muscle fibers available for conditioning, those that do remain intact are as capable of being conditioned as those of a younger person.

Stretching exercises, weight and resistance training, and aerobic conditioning yield significant benefits for seniors. Therefore, it is strongly advised by geriatrics experts that under the guidance of a physician, an exercise program be undertaken by most older people. Such a program not only helps strengthen muscles but aids in maintaining and improving cardio-vascular fitness. It has secondary benefits as well, among them the improvement of balance.

The exercise program need not be elaborate, nor does it require any special equipment. Walking is an all-around conditioner. Within the home, going up and down stairs can condition the legs and cardio-vascular system. Upper body strengthening systems can be accomplished with the aid of equipment as simple as dumbbells. Some physical therapists recommend the use of cans of vegetables as "dumbbells."

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