(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)
You’ve probably heard a thousand times that as you age, your body and mind begin to “go” — you can no longer move the way you used to and your health deteriorates. But those “facts” couldn’t be further from the truth. Aging doesn’t have to mean decline, in fact, just the opposite. Below are six myths and why each is not true.
Myth No. 1: Your genes predetermine how healthy you are.
Why it’s not true: Although the gene sequence you were born with is fixed, gene expression depends on how you live your life. Simply put, we are beginning to learn that your thoughts, emotions, levels of stress, sleep, exercise, breathing, and mind-body coordination can affect your gene expression.
This means that you can turn on or dial up the good genes and turn off or dial down the bad genes. The idea that we can influence our genes is the new science of epigenetics, and something I am currently researching. What we may find with epigenetics is that we each have much more control over the cellular biology of aging.
Myth No. 2: Getting older means feeling older.
Why it’s not true: We each have a chronological age and a biological age. Your chronological age is the age on your birth certificate and answers the question, “How many times have you, in this body, revolved around the sun?”
Your biological age basically reflects how well your body is functioning. Biological age is based on everything from your blood pressure and body fat, to your bone density and cholesterol levels. It is determined by several factors and does not have to match your chronological age.
How you perceive the process of aging, your expectations and beliefs; how you experience time and how energetic you feel actually determine the biology of aging. Think about it this way: A 50-year-old who takes good care of herself can have the biology of a 35-year-old. Alternatively, a 50-year-old who has let himself go may have the biology of someone many years older. You can be much younger biologically than what your birth certificate says.
Myth No. 3: Your body gets frail as you age.
Why it’s not true: Your body doesn’t have to get frail when you get older. You can increase both the strength and mass of your muscles and even improve bone density through exercises and weight-training. Within six weeks of beginning to exercise, studies show, there’s a 100 to 200 percent increase in strength in men aged 60 to 70. And walking for 30 minutes, five days a week, can add more than seven years to your life, according to a recent Harvard University study.
Myth No. 4: Your brain is destined to deteriorate over time.
Why it’s not true: If you think you lose brain cells as you get older, and those cells are gone forever, think again. Research shows that some areas of the brain involved with memory and learning continue to produce new nerve cells every day. So while you do lose brain cells every day, you also are constantly replacing brain cells.
The best thing you can do to build new brain cells is to keep your brain active with new activities and learning. And one of the best things you can do for your brain later in life, research shows, is learn a new language. (Though learning anything new is good for your brain.)
One more thing about your brain: Only 3 to 4 percent of disease-related gene mutations, including mutations for Alzheimer’s disease, are genetically determined. Most disease-related gene mutations are influenced by lifestyle — including emotions, quality of sleep, diet and stress levels. You don’t have to get Alzheimer’s disease or lose mental alertness as you grow old, unless you have a rare gene mutation.
Myth No. 5: Your energy decreases as you get older.
Why it’s not true: Energy levels in the body don’t depend on age. They depend on your attitude and are influenced by the quality of your life. Meditation, restful sleep and exercise are the best ways to experience a joyful and energetic body.
Myth No. 6: The older you are, the more unhappy you are.
Why it’s not true: Happiness has nothing to do with aging. In fact, the later years can be the best time of your life. Many studies have shown that people get happier as they age.
If you eat healthfully, exercise, take care of your mind and stay connected with others, you can influence your happiness levels and what I call your “Set Point”.
Deepak Chopra, M.D., is the author of more than 75 books which have been translated into over 35 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. Chopra is a fellow of the American College of Physicians, a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, Adjunct Professor of Executive Programs at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Adjunct Professor at Columbia Business School, Columbia University, and Senior Scientist with The Gallup Organization. Time Magazine credits Chopra as one of the “Top 100 heroes and icons of the century.”