Let’s face it. You’re going to age whether you like it or not. But aging happens at different rates. You’ve probably seen people who seemingly defied the laws of aging by looking and performing like someone 20 years younger. For example, the world’s oldest gymnast, Johanna Quaas, is 91 years old and still performs more fluidly on a balance beam, mat and parallel bars than most people half her age. It’s time to toss out some of the “rules” and outdated ideas about how a woman’s body ages.
Myth: Weight Gain is inevitable as you age
It’s true that men and women tend to gain body fat with age but some of that gain is due to inactivity. Your resting metabolic rate slows after middle age, partially due to hormonal changes but also related to loss of muscle tissue. The gradual loss of muscle mass begins around the age of 30 but speeds up during late middle age. Plus, after the age of 40, your caloric needs drop by 1% to 2% per decade as your metabolism slows. If you’re still eating as you ate at age 20, expect to gain weight.
The best way to reduce muscle loss and mitigate the drop in metabolism as you age is to strength train. Building lean body mass will help you retain a more youthful body composition AND slow the drop in resting metabolic rate that muscle loss contributes to. High-intensity exercise and getting at least 7 hours of sleep per night will also help optimize hormones, like growth hormone, that decline with age.
Myth: You’ll inevitably lose brain power and cognition as you age
Are you destined to become forgetful and dull-witted as you age? It’s hard not to be a little concerned about the possibility of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Who wants to lose their ability to think and remember? Fortunately, lifestyle plays a role here too.
Strength training is the form of exercise that helps you hold onto muscle but aerobic exercise helps shape your brain and preserve cognitive function as you grow older. There’s now ample evidence that aerobic exercise reduces the loss of brain volume associated with aging. A dynamic, aerobic workout also stimulates a process called neurogenesis that helps build new neural connections and highways within your brain. These changes occur primarily in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, two portions of the brain strongly linked with memory and cognitive function.
Other ways to protect your brain against aging is to socialize and challenge your brain by learning new things. Studies show that people who learn a second language are less likely to develop dementia later in life. Optimize your sleep too – it matters. It’s during sleep that your brain drains debris and misfolded proteins that interfere with brain function. Eat a whole food diet and avoid micronutrient deficiencies. Deficiencies of some micronutrients, particularly thiamin, vitamin B12, and folate, are linked with cognitive problems. Make sure you’re getting omega-3s in your diet as well.
Myth: You’ll inevitably experience hot flashes, mood changes, & other discomforts during menopause
Menopausal symptoms are highly variable and range from hot flashes and mood changes to physical symptoms, like fatigue. Surprisingly, some women experience no symptoms at all. One study showed that attitude plays a role in whether some menopausal symptoms develop. In the study, women who had a more positive outlook toward menopause were less likely to report feeling down or depressed. Menopause is a natural transition and one that also has benefits. For example, you don’t have to deal with the inconvenience of monthly periods.
There’s also some evidence that exercise relieves menopausal symptoms. In a study, women who took part in a supervised, 20-week exercise program reported fewer hot flashes and an improved sense of well-being and happiness. They also experienced improvements in markers of metabolic health and cardiovascular fitness. Some women don’t want to exercise with hot flashes, but as one woman put it, reframe those hot flashes as power surges to help you push through your workout.
Myth: How your body ages is all about genetics
Genetics is only one factor that impacts aging. In fact, studies show that only about 25% of aging is due to genetics. That means 75% is related to lifestyle. Your daily habits – whether you drink a lot or smoke, how much and what you eat, how active you are, your sleep patterns, how you manage stress all influence how rapidly you age. So, take advantage of what you CAN control – your lifestyle. You can’t change your genes but you can influence how your genes are expressed through the lifestyle you lead.
Myth: Depression Goes Along with Aging
It’s a myth that most people withdraw from life and become depressed as they age. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out, depression is not a normal part of growing old. In fact, a study that looked at adults of a variety of ages showed that sense of well-being improves with age. In fact, ratings of happiness climb from age 50 into the ninth decade of life. One reason, according to a study is that we learn to appreciate the simple things in life as we age.
To avoid depression, it’s important to maintain social contacts throughout life and not become isolated from other people. Staying active, including structured exercise, is linked with better self-esteem and there’s evidence that exercise lowers the risk of becoming depressed. In fact, studies show that as little as 2 hours of exercise weekly helps ward off depression and boost happiness.
The Bottom Line
Aging happens whether you like it or not but you do have some influence over how it happens and how quickly. Also, don’t forget that some people are denied the opportunity to age because they pass away early. Celebrate the fact that you’re still around and able to grow older and wiser!
Live Science. “Learning a Second Language Protects Against Alzheimer’s”
Harvard Health Publications. “Menopause: Why some women get hot flashes and others don’t”
Alexandria Journal of Medicine. “Attitudes towards menopause and depression, body image of women during menopause”
Immun Ageing. 2016; 13: 12.
Published online 2016 Apr 5. doi: 10.1186/s12979-016-0066-z
StudyFinds.org. “Study: Exercise Brings Mental Benefits, Fewer Hot Flashes For Women In Menopause”
Menopause: August 2017 – Volume 24 – Issue 8 – p 938–946.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Depression is Not a Normal Part of Growing Older”
Scientific American. “Age Brings Happiness”
Psychology Today. “Older But Happier? 5 Amazing Findings from Recent Research”
Psychology Today. “25 Studies Confirm Exercise Prevents Depression”