What We Get Wrong About Growing Older

graphic of a group of older people looking at a clock


It’s time to stop using your “senior moment” as an excuse for forgetting someone’s name.

You know that old saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”? It’s conventional wisdom, and yet it’s also complete and utter nonsense. 

This and other misconceptions about aging abound. There’s just so much we’ve gotten wrong about what occurs when we grow older, and still so much we have left to learn about the aging process. So we’re digging into some of the most common myths on the topic, to hopefully set the record straight.

Cognitive decline is inevitable

It’s official: Blaming your memory lapse on a “senior moment” is an insufficient excuse. Susan Resnick, Ph.D., a neuroscientist investigating how our brains change as we get older for the National Institute on Aging, tells KCM one of the biggest misconceptions she sees is that many people treat a certain degree of cognitive decline as a given. It’s obviously common for seniors to notice that they might not be as sharp as they once were, or that their memories may begin to fail them when they reach a certain age. But Dr. Resnick says that’s not an inevitability. There is, in fact, a group of people — who’ve come to be known as “SuperAgers” — over the age of 80 who have the memory capacity of individuals at least three decades younger. Although it’s rare, there’s ample evidence that certain lifestyle factors (like regular exercise and frequent mental stimulation) can help prevent cognitive decline as you age, Dr. Resnick says.

Older adults can’t learn new things

There’s a tendency to think of a young brain as a sponge, easily absorbing anything and everything it experiences, and the older brain as its opposite — something heavy with a lifetime of random factoids and knowledge, incapable of soaking up anything new. But that’s simply not the case, according to Dr. Resnick.

Though it may be easier for children to pick up skills like a new language or an instrument, as we get older, we retain a remarkable ability to learn new abilities. That’s due in part to our brain’s capacity for neuroplasticity and neurogenesis — aka its potential for creating new neural pathways and growing new brain cells — which are both essential for learning. It was once believed that our brains only sprouted new neurons when we were either very young, or after the brain sustained a significant injury, Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains. But scientists have recently discovered that that’s not the case, and that even in our twilight years, the brain remains a fertile instrument. 

Research also indicates that learning new things is an excellent way to stay mentally fit. So if you’ve always wanted to learn German or how to salsa, go for it: It really is never too late.

Most seniors aren’t interested in sex

This is another pervasive myth. Our hormone levels certainly change as we get older, but this doesn’t necessarily decrease libido, Dana Rosenfeld, a researcher studying aging at Keele University in the U.K., writes for The Conversation. Some women even experience an increase in libido after menopause.

Older people may also notice a dip in sexual desire as a side effect of certain drugs or because of a chronic illness, like diabetes or heart disease, or as a result of boredom in a long-term relationship, Rosenfeld writes — but not because of the physical changes that come with age.

You need less sleep as you age

There’s no debate that kids need a lot more sleep than adults to ensure that they grow and develop properly. But there’s also this idea that the opposite holds true for seniors — that having done all their growing and being (on average) less physically active than young people, they don’t need as much shut-eye. 

Leila Kheirandish-Gozal, MD, the director of clinical sleep research at the University of Chicago, told TIME that that’s just not true though. Older people need just as much sleep as they did in their 20s or 30s — about eight hours a night. But what commonly happens is that a lot of seniors struggle to sleep through the night and interpret that as a cue that they don’t need to be sleeping as much. A good night’s rest, though, is crucial at any age.

Older people are less productive in the workplace

Sadly, ageism in the office is still very common. That’s probably due to the prevailing myth that older workers are somehow less productive, struggle to pick up new technology, or pour less energy into their work. It’s a very well-studied issue, and so far, most research indicates that this notion is false.

Some studies even show that veteran workers might actually be more effective than their younger peers. Researchers conducting an international study in 2010 found that older workers were more focused and better able to hone in on the tasks at hand, and that their experience helped them compensate for any physical or mental challenges that come with getting older, Vox reports

“Older employees soundly thrash their younger colleagues. Every aspect of job performance gets better as we age,” Peter Capelli, a management professor at the Wharton School of Business, told Vox. “I thought the picture might be more mixed, but it isn’t. The juxtaposition between the superior performance of older workers and the discrimination against them in the workplaces just really makes no sense.”