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L.J. Rohan

L.J. Rohan

Gerontologist

Myth: You Are Stuck with The Brain You’re Born With

Once upon a time in the far distant past of medieval medicine (pre-1960’s) doctors and scientists thought this to be true, and so the world thought this to be true. This belief has now gone the way of other beliefs like margarine is good for us, or little green men live on Mars.

Since the swingin’ sixties, the term neuroplasticity was added to the dictionary, defined as, “The ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury.” In other words, learning and challenging the brain creates new cells and lays new track, especially in our beloved hippocampus. Scientists now know we can build up brain capacity until the very end. Even when some parts of our brains diminish due to injury, illness, or disease, if we continue to feed our heads, our brains will respond positively.

More evidence comes from the fifteen-year Nun Study conducted at the University of Kentucky, which studied over 650 Catholic sisters, aged 75 to 107, who were members of the Notre Dame congregation. All lived very similar lives and each had annual cognitive and physical evaluations throughout the study.

Researchers found that women who were more inclined to learn throughout their lives showed far less incidence of Alzheimer’s than those sisters who were less keen on learning new things. Just another example of how miraculous the human body is and how once again, the adage proves true: “Use it, or lose it.” Today, neuroplasticity is an accepted fact that we hope debunks this myth once and for all.

Repeat after me, “I am NOT stuck with the brain I was born with!”

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Myth: Only Old People Are Aging

“Only old people are aging.” I want you to think about this belief for a moment. The acceptance of this myth is so pervasive, it took me a few minutes of quiet thinking to see the ageism inherent in it.

Do you think of a five year old as aging? In your twenties or thirties did you think you were “aging;” actually using that word to reflect the addition of more candles on your cake each year? I would bet not in both cases.

Research shows even into our forties we don’t think of ourselves as aging in the same way we look at older adults in their fifties and older, who are moving across the timeline of their lives. So, what happens to alter our perception of older adults? Why do younger generations begin referring to us as aging, another way of saying getting old, and often meaning it in a disrespectful, derogatory way?

What causes this shift in thinking? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Myth: Older People Need To Be Spoken To Slower And More Simply

WELL…NOW…LET’S…LOOK…AT…THIS…STEREOTYPE.

Sadly, a term even exists for the adoption of slower and simpler speech patterns when talking to a senior: Elderspeak. The American Psychology Association defines elderspeak as:

Adjustments in speech patterns, such as speaking more slowly or more loudly, shortening sentences or using limited or less complex vocabulary that are sometimes made by younger people when communicating with older adults.*

Younger people too often think that once we become seniors, we unilaterally and instantaneously lose our hearing and become dim-witted; therefore requiring slower and simpler speech patterns. They immediately forget that, just yesterday, we were their respected and revered professors, mentors, or grandparents.

Once someone internalizes the beliefs others hold about her, verses what she believes about herself, the effect on her can be devastating. It results in a loss of self-esteem and self-confidence and worse, the adoption of the belief that she is now somehow less mentally sharp or suffers from hearing loss. She begins to mentally shrink and draw into her world, becoming a shell of her former self.

To be honest, I find the pervasiveness of this behavior toward seniors, especially given the number of seniors in positions of visible power and influence around the world today, astonishing.

WHAT…DO…YOU…THINK?

*Dictionary.apa.org

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Myth: Old People Should Just Get Used To Being Old

I find this one of the most confounding ideas of ageism I have ever come across. Authors Bruce E. Blaine and Kimberly J. McClure Brenchley, in their book, The Psychology of Diversity, note that unlike other minorities—racial, LGBT, women– older people acquire their membership as a senior citizen with no gradual induction into this particular group. We have no time to become accustomed to being older or to understand the ensuing bias younger people hold against seniors.  We are most often not prepared to handle the sudden ageism we experience. However, since younger people feel themselves to be eternally young and fearless, unaware and uncaring of what lies ahead for them, they see the struggle we seniors experience with abrupt stereotyping as a situation we just need to accept: we’re now old. Get over it!

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Myth: Fine Craftsmanship Is Only for The Young

As I read an article about quilting artists in my Craft Magazine, I could feel my heartbeats speeding up, my hackles rising. I was appalled at how the author put her prejudice against older artists so blatantly on display. How could someone think that artistic expression, fine craftsmanship, and intricate needlework are limited to the young?

I have been a part of the creative arts world since I could barely walk. In all of that time, I have looked to older artists for insight, wisdom, and solutions to gnarly problems beyond my skill level. They are the true masters and mentors, and I thank the Heavens for them!

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