Older Adults’ Health and Age-Related Changes : Reality Versus Myth.

America is aging. The number of Americans over age 65 is increasing dramatically as we approach the millennium. Never in our nation’s history have so many people lived into the later stages of their lives and remained healthy and productive. The proportion of Americans age 65 and over comprises nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population. In fewer than 25 years, thoseover age 65 will make up 20 percent of the U.S. population. Americans’ living longer andstaying increasingly active and productive is a welcome sign for our nation. However, society’s view of “old age” has not always kept up with the reality of older Americans’ health or the fact that while many people over the age of 65 experience some limitations, they learn to live with them and lead happy and p roductive lives.

Accurate information and continued research on the aging process are critical as Americans age. This brochure contains information about older Americans and attempts to dispel the myths regarding that age group.

Facts About Aging

As with many stereotypes, the stereotypes about aging are often inaccurate. Most older Americans live independently and maintain close relationships with family and friends. Most peoples’ personalities remain relatively stable throughout their lives. Depression among noninstitutionalized older adults is less prevalent than depression in younger adults. However, most older adults do experience normal, age-related changes that may affect their lifestyle. Common age-related physical changes include hearing impairment, weakening vision, and the increasing probability of arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis. The speed with which information is encoded, stored, and received may decrease as we age, and older Americans may experience memory loss.

Changes in Mental Health and Mental Processes

Cognitive changes, which are associated with mental processes such as sensation and perception, memory, intelligence, language, thought, and problem-solving, occur among aging adults.

• Because it may take older adults more time to encode, store, and retrieve information, the rate at which new information is learned can be slower among aging adults, and older adults often have a greater need for repetition of new information. Although it may take older adults longer to input and retrieve new information, daily occupational and social functioning among those over age 65 is not impaired.

• Long-term memory shows substantial changes with age, while short-term memory shows less age-related decline.

• Most aspects of language ability remain strong, yet word-finding ability declines with age. Three-dimensional drawing similarly declines with age.

• Wisdom and creativity often continue to the very end of life.

Overall prevalence of mental disorders in older adults is less than in any other age group, and general life satisfaction among older Americans is as good as, if not better, than any other age group.

Demographic, Economic, and Social Issues

The population of older Americans is getting older, with the number of Americans over age 85 increasing faster than any other group. Since 1900, the proportion of Americans age 65 and older has more than tripled. Life expectancy for men is now 73 years ; for women, it is 80 years.

• Our population of older Americans is increasingly more educated. While 34 percent of those over age 65 graduated from high school, that figure will rise to 83 percent by the year 2030.

• Thirteen percent of older adults live in poverty, as compared with 15 percent of Americans under age 65. However, the figur e is 33 percent for African-Americans, 22 per-cent for Hispanics, and 20 percent for adults over age 85.

• Sixty-four percent of older Americans between the ages of 65 and 74 are married and live with a spouse ; while of those over age 85, 24 percent are married and live with a spouse, and 48 percent live alone. Among women over age 65, one-half are widowers.

• The primary source of income for those over age 65 is social security benefits.

• Religious affiliation is the most common form of organizational participation among older adults, with 50 percent reporting attending services weekly.

• Two-thirds reported voting in the 1992 presi-dential election, compared to 50 percent of younger adults.

Older Minorities

Today’s older Americans are predominantly White, but the demographics of older America will undergo a dramatic transformation in the next few decades.

• The number of older Black Americans will triple by the middle of the next century, mov-ing them from 8 to 10 percent of Americans over age 65.

• The older Hispanic population will increase 11 fold, going from representing fewer than 4 percent of today’s older adults to represent-ing nearly 16 percent of older adults.

• There are some major differences in the aging of the minority population as compared to the aging of White Americans.

• The onset of chronic illness in minorities is usually earlier than in Whites.

• Minorities have a higher incidence of obesity and late onset diabetes.

• Health problems among minorities are under-reported to healthcare practitioners.

• Minorities frequently delay seeking health-related treatments.

• Minorities have often been excluded from drug research.

• Some of the factors contributing to poor men-tal health among minorities include poverty, segregated and disorganized communities, poor education, unemployment, stereotyping, discrimination, and poor healthcare.

Physical Changes

A number of physical changes occur as adults reach age 65. The most common are listed below.

• Hearing impairment among older adults is often moderate or mild, yet it is widespread ; 48 percent of men and 37 percent of women over age 75 experience hearing difficulties.

• Visual changes among aging adults include problems with reading speed, seeing in dim light, reading small print, and locating objects.

• The amount of time it takes to respond to features in the environment once they are detected is typically slower among older adults.

• The proportion of older adults needing assistance with everyday activities increases with age. Nine percent of those between ages 65 and 69 need personal assistance, while up to 50 percent of older Americans over 85 need assistance with everyday activities.

• The top five causes of death among older adults are heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disease (relating to the blood vessels that supply the brain), pneumonia and flu, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

In spite of a decline in physical health, two-thirds of older adults who are not living in institutions (such as nursing homes) report their health to be good, very good, or excellent compared with others their age. What’s important to remember about people over age 65 is that while many begin to experience some physical limitations, they learn to live with them and lead happy and productive lives.


They are a very diverse age group. Most older adults maintain close contact with family. Most older people live independently. For most older adults, if there is decline in some intellectual abilities, it is not severe enough to cause problems in daily living. Community dwelling older adults have lower rates of diagnosable depression than younger adults. Personality remains relatively consistent throughout the lifespan. Most older people successfully adjust to the challenges of aging.


Most older people are pretty much alike. They are generally alone and lonely. They are sick, frail, and dependent on others. They are often cognitively impaired. They are depressed. They become more difficult and rigid with advancing years. They barely cope with the inevitable declines associated with aging.


Armed with the facts about the myths and realities surrounding aging, society can better prepare itself to assist its older population, as can individual families. Regular mood and memory checkups should be encouraged for all older adults, just as we now encourage regular physicals. What’s important to remember is that depression and social isolation are not normal for older Americans-living happily and productively is the norm for today’s older adults

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