There have always been old wives’ tales related to health issues, passed down as family sayings or basic truisms. And then came the Internet, with its explosion of information, misinformation, myths, and just plain nonsense. Sorting out truth from fiction isn’t easy when it comes to health issues. In this article, we look at some common misconceptions of healthy aging and give you the facts about some of the things you may have taken as gospel most of your life.
1. High Cholesterol Is Linked to Weight
If you’re thin, it may not even occur to you to check your cholesterol. The myth that people with high cholesterol are overweight can be a dangerous one. You can have high cholesterol and be as thin as a whispering willow. How can that be?
Any body type can have high cholesterol. Cholesterol comes from two sources: the foods you eat and what your body naturally makes based on heredity. You have control over the amount of cholesterol you eat, but cholesterol levels are influenced even more by your genetics. You should start getting your cholesterol levels checked at age 20 or earlier if you have a family history of heart disease. Take responsibility for your health by learning how to interpret the numbers, including HDL (good) cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.
Talk with your doctor about modifying your lifestyle or your potential risk factors. If you do have high cholesterol, follow all your doctor’s instructions, and have your cholesterol retested as your doctor recommends.
2. High Blood Pressure Is Caused by High Stress
Everyone feels stress at one time or another, but stress isn’t the cause of ongoing high blood pressure. In fact, doctors aren’t completely sure what causes high blood pressure. Many risk factors have been cited and stress is often included in the list, but there hasn’t been a direct link between the two.
With that said, stressors can elevate the heart rate and blood pressure, but they then return to baseline. There are many people that are placed under stress and don’t have elevations in their blood pressure. Often, the stressed individuals that do see ongoing elevations have also added several other blood pressure elevating factors into their lifestyle, such as smoking, being sedentary, weight gain, and poor diet.
3. Women Shouldn’t Worry About Heart Disease
If you tell a woman that she’s more likely to die of a heart attack or stroke than breast cancer, she may not believe you. Why? According to a recent study, women think heart disease is a man’s disease and cancer is the disease that
most women die from. Not true. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women and is responsible for nearly twice as many deaths in women than all cancers combined, including breast cancer. Some of the reasons why this myth isn’t true are that women are smoking more, working more, and often aren’t as aggressively screened for heart disease.
Since the initiation of some national programs targeting heart disease in women, there has been a large jump in the number of women that now know that heart disease is a deadly disease for women and that they need to be proactive in their care.
4. Osteoporosis Is a Normal Part of Aging
Brittle bones, fractured hips, and humpbacks aren’t part of normal aging. Not everyone develops osteoporosis, and even if you’re at risk, there are measures you can take to prevent it. The earlier in life you start preventing, the better, because you hit your maximum bone mass in your 30s.
Stacking up on bone-building activities like strength and resistance training as well as weight-bearing exercise enables you to use the force of gravity against your muscles to push the calcium into your bones. This can reduce the rate of bone loss.
5. Only Smokers Get Lung Cancer
The rate of people being diagnosed with lung cancer who’ve never smoked is increasing, particularly among women. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), about 10 percent of men and 20 percent of women with lung cancer never smoked. Two possible reasons are secondhand smoke and genetics.
Stanford University medical oncologist Heather Wakelee’s research indicated that a nonsmoker who’s married to a smoker has a 30 percent greater risk of developing lung cancer than the spouse of a nonsmoker. While it’s possible that the reason women have a greater risk than men is because it’s more common for men to smoke than women, women would still be exposed to the secondhand smoke of their spouses.
Genetics may be another factor for developing lung cancer in people who never smoked, as in the case of actress Dana Reeves (widow of actor Christopher Reeves) who was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 44. According to the ACS, only 3 percent of lung cancers occur in people under 45, regardless of smoking status.
6. People with Darker Skin Don’t Need to Wear Sunscreen
You may have heard that people with dark skin are naturally protected from the sun’s ultraviolet A and B (UVA and UVB) rays, so they don’t need to wear sunscreen. Although dark skin does contain more melanin — the pigment responsible for determining skin color — it’s not true that dark skin can’t be burned or damaged. Melanocytes are pigment-producing cells that make more melanin (and thus create a tan) when you expose your skin to the sun. Melanin is your skin’s natural defense system against burning, so there is some truth that dark skin provides some protection against sun damage.
So regardless of your skin type, remember to protect your skin in the sun by liberally applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen of sun protection factor (SPF) 15 or more and by wearing sun-protective clothing.
If you think that SPF 1000 is better than SPF 30, here’s the truth about the numbers: An SPF over 30 doesn’t increase the amount of blockage; it increases the length of time you can stay in the sun without burning. Once you get past SPF 30, the higher SPF creams are more expensive, so save your money and stop at SPF 30.
7. Herbs Are Natural, So They Can’t Hurt You
Just because something’s natural, doesn’t mean that it’s guaranteed to be safe. Many herbs can be harmful or even deadly if ingested. And herbal products and supplements that are advertised as natural aren’t necessarily natural to the human body. Many herbs interact with over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications, making it difficult for your doctor to manage medications.
Find a good pocket consumer guide that explains terminology. Also, read labels and talk with your doctor before taking these natural products, especially if you’re taking other medications.
8. The Older You Get, The Less Sleep You Need
Did you ever wonder why Grandma was up at 4 a.m. when you had no trouble sleeping in until 10 a.m.? Well, Grandma may have gotten used to waking before the dawn, but she still needs sleep — she just can’t get all she needs.
As you age, you tend to lose the ability to sleep as deeply at nighttime. Your sleep cycles naturally change, causing a gradual degradation of the sleep/ wake process. So, you may sleep more lightly and for shorter time spans as you get older, but you generally need about the same amount of sleep as you need in early adulthood.
This fact explains why older people take naps — in an attempt to catch up on their sleep, which unfortunately isn’t possible. About half of all people over 65 have frequent sleeping problems like insomnia. This change is mainly due to aging, but other factors that may contribute are medical problems and the medications to treat those problems.
9. As You Age, You Can’t Build Muscle
While body building may not be high on most senior’s “to do” list, building muscle is more important than ever as a person ages and it is possible. Muscle mass declines with age — with each decade after age 25, 3 to 5 percent of muscle mass is lost. However, studies also have shown that there can be significant improvements in muscle strength in previously sedentary older adults that follow a regular exercise program.
The American College of Sports Medicine now recommends weight training for people over 50 — even people well into their 90s can benefit. A group of nursing home residents ranging in age from 87 to 96 recently improved their muscle strength by almost 180 percent after just eight weeks of strength training. Adding that much strength gave these folks significant functionality that they thought they had permanently lost.
10. Eating Late at Night Is Less Healthy Than Eating Early
If you eat a bowl of chocolate ice cream at midnight, it has the same number of calories no matter when they’re consumed. But it’s not the full stomach at bedtime that puts on the extra pounds; it’s the extra calories — no matter when you eat them.
You’re likely to experience discomfort at night and the next morning if you eat late at night. Here’s why:
Your food may only partially digest: Food left in the stomach leads to heartburn, indigestion, and, as a result, the inability to fall sleep. Lying in a prone position doesn’t allow gravity to pull food down the digestive track. Late-night eating can also cause morning gas and stomach cramps.
Your body is using its energy on digestion when it should be in energy-save mode: One primary function of sleep is to help you recuperate from the day. You want your body to be as relaxed as possible so you can wake up energized.
Generally, don’t eat two to three hours before bed to allow your body sufficient time for digestion. If you’re not starving, the best option is to have some water and call it a night, but don’t go to bed hungry, because you can have a restless night of sleep, too. If you’re hungry and you do eat, try something small and healthy like a snack with protein to help you feel more full such as an ounce of mixed nuts, a salad, or a cup of yogurt. This way you don’t overeat or significantly raise your caloric count while risking a long night of heartburn. The best way to avoid being hungry at night is to drink enough water and eat at least five small meals during the day rather than the normal 2 to 3 meals. This helps maximize your metabolism and also your blood sugars.