3 myths about aging and how to find vitality in all seasons of life

While some like to refer to getting old as “getting put out in the pasture,” Norman Hill, former mission president in the Ghana Accra West and Sierra Leone Freetown missions and affiliate associate professor at Brigham Young University’s Ballard Center for Social Impact, prefers to think that “even as we age, there’s much to do, and much to be.” 

Hill recently joined the Church News podcast to talk about what he’s learned about old age, both from his own experience and the experiences of others, and how many commonly-held beliefs about growing old are inaccurate.

Last year, Hill worked with a committee to design a health and wellness survey that was administered to over 2,000 people in Washington County, Utah. He’s also conducted several interviews with individuals over the age of 60.

“Analyzing that data has given me great insights,” he said.

Several Church leaders have given counsel about aging, such as President Boyd K. Packer, the late Apostle, who said that “there is so much to do and so much to be. Do not withdraw into a retirement from life, into amusement. That, for some, would be useless, even selfish.”

Hill also drew wisdom from President Spencer W. Kimball, who, after being asked if he was “slowing down” as he grew older, replied, “No, I would much rather wear out than rust out.”

Episode 36: How to make the most of your golden years, according to this BYU associate professor

The approach of looking to the future, Hill said, “changes our perspective, turns us in a different way. … I like to say it’s growing older without getting old as we look for those silver linings.”

He shared three myths about aging, or, as he refers to them, “longevity zombies.”

“A zombie is something or someone who is no longer in full vitality. A longevity zombie is a belief or concept, it’s actually been killed off by evidence, but it’s still around scaring people because it’s repeated so often,” he explained.

The first “longevity zombie” he referred to was that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

In reality, there’s no evidence of cognitive decline in age, according to Dr. Timothy Salthouse at the University of Virginia. “The research and the evidence is (that) we can learn new things, regardless of our age,” Hill said.

A second myth is that older people have more driving accidents. In 2015, the American Automobile Association performed a study that found that 60 to 69 year olds and 70 to 79 year olds have the safest driving records. 

The last myth that Hill pointed out is that physical health declines with age. 

“People researching today from a health science point of view are finding that vitality occurs in the 80s and 90s, as we see with President [Russell M.] Nelson — we’re all trying to keep up with him — just as much as any younger age, provided we are active, we reach out, we do new things, we try new things,” he said.

For older people to ignore health, nutrition, exercise and curiosity is “to begin a steep decline.”

While in Ghana, Hill learned a phrase in the local language of Twi: “Anoma anntu a, obua da.” 

“In English, the rough translation is, ‘A bird must leave the nest in order to get a worm.’ It’s this sense of always wanting to do something more, looking to the future that keeps people young.”

He also spoke about the benefits of giving service, especially for those dealing with loneliness.

“By looking outward at other people, it changes how we think about ourselves,” he said. “It’s well-documented that gratitude and serving others physically has an impact on us as well. It relaxes us. It changes our sense of anxiety. It minimizes ordinary depression.”

An especially important way of reaching out involves reaching out within one’s family to share family history and to “make sure that the gospel message is passed on to each generation — I think that as interesting and as important an activity as any of us can imagine,” Hill said.

Telling family stories to children and grandchildren can help them to develop self-esteem and self-concepts. “Not only do we want to be able to share these experiences, but it seems to make a difference emotionally as well as spiritually to younger children.”

He testified that through exercise, both physical and spiritual, vitality and growth can be maintained at all ages.

“As we embrace the gospel and constantly look for new things to do and to be, the Lord will open doors for us that we can’t imagine.”