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    Psychologist debunks many myths of aging

    Is memory really the first thing to go? Not so, the Harvard professor says. He will share other insights at a talk May 15.

    By JULIANNE WU

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001


    DUNEDIN -- "Optimal aging" is a term Dr. Douglas H. Powell likes to use in his book, The Nine Myths of Aging.

    "I mean getting the most out of what's possible," said Powell, a psychologist and retired Harvard University professor who will speak at a May 15 meeting of the Dunedin Committee on Aging.

    Also that day, the committee will announce its selections to the 2001 Dunedin Senior Hall of Fame.

    While developing a cognitive test for doctors about 15 years ago, Powell said, he discovered a lot of myths about aging. He and his team tested about 1,000 physicians between the ages of 25 and 92, most of them from Florida.

    "What we found was that you can have a lot wrong with you physically and still function very comfortably mentally," said Powell, contacted Thursday at his Cambridge, Mass., office.

    Powell, 68, officially retired from Harvard in 1998, "but I continue to teach a course," he said. He is the former coordinator of the behavior therapy program at Harvard's health services department and director of research in behavioral science. He taught for more than 35 years at Harvard's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and is the author of four books, including Profiles of Cognitive Aging and Teenagers: When to Worry and What to Do.

    For several years, Powell was a team member of the Florida Geriatric Research Program of Morton Plant Mease Health Care System in Clearwater, headed then by Dr. William E. Hale, who is now the chairman of the Dunedin Committee on Aging.

    In his book, Powell debunks the most common and prevalent myths regarding growing older and offers some tips on how to stay physically, mentally and socially vigorous in one's golden years.

    The myths include:

    Aging is a boring subject.

    With baby boomers nearing retirement age, he says, the economy will need older workers to make up for a dwindling work force. The implications for the economy and Social Security system are anything but boring.

    All old people are pretty much the same.

    Seniors have far greater variability in cognitive and physical abilities than middle-agers, Powell said.

    An unsound body means an unsound mind.

    In reality, mental powers are independent of a person's physical capabilities.

    Memory is the first thing to go.

    Many in the scientific community agree that other mental capabilities decline before the memory.

    Use it or lose it.

    Normal age-related losses or declines are inevitable. The key is learning helpful strategies for slowing, overcoming and/or coping with such declines.

    Old dogs can't learn new tricks.

    Opportunities abound for continuing growth mentally, physically, socially and professionally, regardless of age.

    Old people are isolated and lonely.

    Many seniors have social networks such as Elderhostel, Outward Bound and other programs.

    Old people are depressed and have every right to be.

    Seniors, as a group, report being in happier moods than many midlife adults.

    Wisdom requires being smart and elderly.

    Wisdom does not spring merely from growing older, but rather from learning from experience, living life to the fullest and coming to know one's self.

    * * *

    "The last chapter really sums up my advice to what I call "young oldsters,' " said Powell.

    Some of his advice: Exercise regularly, be open to diverse experiences and know that retirement is often overrated. You can be happy with a part-time or even a volunteer job.

    Talk on aging

    Psychologist Dr. Douglas H. Powell will address the Dunedin Committee on Aging at 10:30 a.m. May 15 at Dunedin Country Club, 1050 Palm Blvd. Doors open at 10 a.m. Light refreshments. Limited parking available. The free event is open to the public, but reservations are required by May 11. Call the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. weekdays at (727) 733-3197.

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