Seniors: Stay Safe on the Internet!

Scammers looking to make a quick buck are nothing new. As long as there have been people, there have been other people trying to take advantage of them! But the 21st century is a brave new world when it comes to scamming: fraudsters have the power of the internet at their fingertips, and they’ve gotten very, very good at finding ways to take your hard-earned money. Sure, there are still some old-fashioned scammers out there that come to your door, send you snail mail, or call you on the phone, but they seem almost quaint now compared to the sophistication of online scammers. 

And these online scammers, unfortunately, often target older adults, thinking that people in your demographic are easy targets – but you can prove them wrong! Armed with a little bit of knowledge about what kind of internet scams are out there, and how to avoid them, you can stay safe on the internet, and get back to chatting and shopping without fear.

Seniors and Internet Scams by the Numbershand coming out of computer screen grabbing money and card

Scammers don’t discriminate. They’ll target anyone of any race, gender, or age, but the unfortunate truth is that they do target older adults more often than they do any other group. And things are only getting worse: the last two years have seen our dependence on technology increase, and so we’ve also seen an increase in online scams. 

According to “official” figures from the FBI, their Internet Crime Complaint Center received a total of 791,790 complaints with reported losses exceeding $4.1 billion. Based on the information provided in the complaints, approximately 28% of total fraud losses were sustained by victims over the age of 60, resulting in approximately $1 billion in losses to seniors. This represents an increase of approximately $300 million in losses reported in 2020 versus what was reported by victims over 60 in 2019. 

But other sources tell a different story. According to an estimate by the American Journal of Public Health, a full 5% of the elderly population (which equates to around 2-3 million people) are victims of some sort of scam every year. “What’s worse, it’s very likely an underestimate,” said David Brune, a professor at the University of Toronto, who points out that a huge amount of internet scams probably go unreported. In fact, it’s more likely that seniors lose $3 billion each year to scams, with some even estimating that a whopping $36 billion is lost by seniors every year.  

Whatever the real numbers, it’s clear that online scams targeting older adults are a huge problem, and we all need to be aware of what’s out there, so we can help combat it.

Common Online Scams

As we pointed out above, scammers target older adults simply because they can, and because they think that seniors are more trusting, more financially stable, lonelier, and less internet savvy than other targets. But as we also pointed out, you don’t have to fall prey to online scams, you just need to know what to look out for. In addition, remember that scammers rely on seniors being embarrassed that they’ve been taken for a ride, and think they won’t report what’s happened to them, so if you are scammed be sure to report it! But hopefully, it won’t come to that, if you are aware of the following common online scams. 

Online Romance Scams

We mentioned earlier that scammers target older adults because they think your age group is prone to loneliness, and this type of scam preys on that assumption. Fraudsters will set up accounts on online dating sites or social media platforms, and try to connect with you, looking especially for older adults who have lost a spouse or who are isolated from other family members. Once you’ve been chatting for a while, and they have gained your trust, they might mention money problems, an emergency that they need help with, or even introduce you to some sort of investment opportunity that they claim you could benefit from. 

Whatever the case, they will ask for money – and there have been cases of sweetheart scammers draining seniors’ entire bank accounts. This is not only one of the most lucrative types of scam, it’s also one of the most common: “romance fraud” crimes resulted in $281,134,006 total in victim losses, and were the majority of complaints from seniors aged 60 and over received by the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. From January 1 to July 31, 2021, the center reported receiving more than 1,800 complaints related to online romance scams, resulting in losses of approximately $133,400,000. And again, those are only the cases we know about, so this is something you should absolutely be wary of when trying to meet people online!

Social Media Advertising Scamssocial media apps on a phone

The next two types of scams make up the second most common types of online scams that older adults fall prey to: scams involving false advertising and online shopping. Just as many of us took to the internet during the pandemic to meet people, many of us also spent more time scrolling through social media, and were more open to shopping online, a combination that led to a lot more scamming. How? Scammers often put advertisements for products on social media, but when you order the product, they will not deliver it, will send something that doesn’t look anything like the product you ordered, or even steal your information.

According to an FBI report, “The combination of online shopping and social media creates easy venues for scammers to post false advertisements. Many victims report ordering items from links advertised on social media and either receiving nothing at all or receiving something completely unlike the advertised item.” Online shopping can be a life-saver (or just kind of fun!), but it’s best to only buy from reputable sites that you know. Which brings us to another type of online shopping/false advertising scam…

Health and Beauty Products Scams

Scammers think they know what seniors want: cheap prescription medications and anti-aging products. That means you have to be very wary of any of these types of products being advertised online, since scams involving counterfeit health and beauty products have become much more frequent since the start of the pandemic. In fact, elderly victims filed more than 14,000 complaints about nonpayment/non-delivery cases for a total loss of around $40 million in 2020, which was double the number of complaints about the same type of crime in 2019 or 2018. 

What to be on the lookout for? Advertisements or emails touting prescription drugs that work just as well, but are cheaper, than the ones you’re paying for now. These drugs could be counterfeit, which can be dangerous, or they might not even exist – scammers might simply be trying to get your insurance information or credit card number. Also, be wary of advertisements or emails offering Botox treatments or other anti-aging products: again, you could end up purchasing either something that doesn’t exist, or could even be harmful to your health. 

Technical Support Scams

The third most common type of internet scam targeting seniors is those involving fake offers of technical support. You might get a pop-up message on your computer, telling you your account is compromised, or you have a virus, and that you need to contact a technical support team, or click on a link to resolve the issue. As the FBI points out in their report, In these schemes, a criminal poses “as support or service representatives offering to resolve such issues as a compromised email or bank account, a virus on a computer, or a software license renewal.”  

The FBI points out that this has become a big problem: in fact, in 2020, the Internet Crime Complaint Center saw a huge leap in the number of complaints about these crimes and the amount lost. Victims aged 60 and older were defrauded $116,415,126 from these types of online scams in 2020, compared with 2019, when they resulted in a loss of $38,410 for the same age group. The bottom line: companies won’t contact you about technical support, you have to contact them, so never ever engage with these types of requests.

Sweepstakes Scams

Some online scams will attempt to convince you that you’ve won a prize, maybe because you’ve helped the website hit a milestone, or even just that you’re a random lucky winner. So how can something that’s supposedly free be a scam? You just have to remember that nothing on the internet is ever free! Fraudsters perpetrating sweepstakes scams will tell you you’ve won something, but you will have to give them your personal information to claim your “free” prize, or give your credit card information and pay a fee to have it sent or transferred to you. All of this should be a red flag – in fact, it’s always best to ignore any bright, loud, flashing pop-ups telling you you’ve won a prize that you didn’t even sign up for!

Vacation Scams person with a mask on with different kinds of internet scams around

Again, it’s important to remember that nothing on the internet is ever free; it’s also important to remember that if something on the internet looks too good to be true, it probably is. Scammers might advertise “free” vacations, or deals on vacations to popular destinations that are so good you just can’t pass them up. But these “deals” will often require that you place a down payment quickly, since the offer is only for a “limited time,” and they are often advertised by fraudsters who either don’t own the property, or who are advertising a property that doesn’t even exist. You should always read the reviews of a property before booking, and if you want to book through a third-party online, stick with reputable sites. 

Avoid Getting Scammed!

Knowing is definitely more than half the battle when it comes to online scams, but there are some steps you can take to stay safe when surfing. Keep the following in mind:

  • No government agency, internet service provider, tech company, bank, etc will notify you through email or on a website that you owe them money.
  • If a deal on a vacation, prescription drug, or something else seems too good to be true, it probably is. Perform more research on the company providing the deal.
  • Verify, verify, verify: always follow up before you take action. For example, if you get a message from someone claiming to be with your bank, contact your bank directly to see if they are really trying to reach you.
  • If you’re unsure about a purchase or a request for information, don’t be afraid to ask a trusted family member or friend for their advice on what action you should take. 
  • The FBI suggests you contact your doctor before committing to any health procedure or treatment that you aren’t using your insurance for.
  • Don’t know them? Don’t do business with them. Avoid clicking on links in emails from unknown sources, or buying products from unknown companies, no matter how enticing their social media ads are.
  • It can be uncomfortable, or even painful, to break off a relationship with someone you’ve been chatting with online, but if they begin to ask for money, you should end things as quickly as possible.
  • Always be wary of “limited time” deals that are ending in the next few minutes – don’t give in to impulse buying scams!

How to Report Internet Scams

caution sign
There are many ways you can report fraud.

It’s an unfortunate fact that more than 80% of internet scams go unreported – not only because the victim doesn’t get justice when these crimes go unreported, but also because reporting them is the only way to stop them. If you’ve been the victim of a scam, you can report it to:

  • FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC): This government agency looks into telemarketing and phishing scams
  • Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC): If you suspect you’ve been scammed by an investment scheme, you can contact the SEC
  • Social Security Administration: The SSA is a great place to report potential scams that involve your social security number or funds
  • Better Business Bureau: If you feel a business is scamming you online, report it to the Better Business Bureau
  • Your bank: If you get scammed out of money, all hope is not lost – speak to your bank, and you might be able to recoup your money

There are a whole lot of unscrupulous people out there, looking to take advantage of the whole lot of us out there shopping, chatting, and surfing online. But you know what? We can be ready for them! Armed with the knowledge above, you can avoid the most common scams targeting older adults online, and thwart all of those fraudsters. Just remember, though, if the worst does happen, it’s not your fault – but you do need to report it, so you can hopefully get back what you’ve lost AND make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else!

Surprise! What Some Seniors Don’t Know About Nutrition

It should come as no surprise to you that, now that you’re getting older, you need to take really good care of yourself. Not that striving to be healthy wasn’t important when you were younger, but now the stakes just seem higher, right? So you’ve got to be at the top of your game when it comes to knowing what your body needs, like the right amount of exercise and sleep, and eating well. 

But when it comes to your nutrition as a senior, maybe there are still a few surprises lurking! Check out the following surprising facts about older adults and nutrition, and see if you can find some ways to tweak your diet – you might just make yourself a little healthier and a little more ready to face all the surprises that life still has in store for you.

You Need More Calcium as You Age

eggs, milk and cheese
Surprisingly, your calcium needs actually go up as you age!

Think your days of needing extra calcium ended with your days of having cookies and milk before bed (ok, we won’t judge if you still have cookies and milk before bed!)? It might surprise you to know that your calcium needs actually go up as you age, even though you’re not building bones and teeth the way you were when you were a kiddo. That’s because calcium is more than just the bone-builder we think it is: it helps muscles move, and helps nerves carry messages from the brain to all body parts, meaning it remains a vitally important nutrient throughout your whole life. Not only that, but there is now evolving evidence that getting enough calcium can help to stabilize bone loss in older adults with osteoporosis or osteopenia

So how much calcium do you need? More even than when you were younger: women over 50 need 1200 milligrams (about 4 cups of dairy) a day, and men past 70 need 1200 mg as well (under 70, 1,000 mg). Nutrition experts recommend getting your daily dose from foods as much as you can, and also speaking to your doctor about getting the right amount of vitamin D, since D helps your body to absorb calcium. 

You Need Fewer Calories Now, But More Nutrients

Did you know that the average American eats 300 calories more a day now than they did in the 1980s? That’s not good for anyone, especially not older adults. Why? Because as you age, your muscle mass gradually decreases while the proportion of fat increases. Since muscle tissue burns more calories than fat, you’ll need fewer calories to maintain your usual weight. For example, a woman who is 5’4″, 130 pounds, and who engages in light exercise for an hour each day might need 1,980 calories at age 40. At age 50, weighing and exercising the same amount, she might need only 1,880.

But that doesn’t mean you should be skipping meals. It actually means you need to step up your game when it comes to eating plenty of nutrient-dense food, especially because you might have less of an appetite than you used to. (Think about this: one study found that 43% of seniors admitted to intensive care units were malnourished!) This is because, as we age, our bodies are less efficient at making or absorbing some vitamins and minerals. For example, the skin’s ability to generate vitamin D from sunlight declines, and the body’s ability to absorb B12 also decreases. Make sure you’re eating a variety of fruits and veggies, in addition to lean protein, legumes, nuts, and dairy products so that you’re sure to pack all the nutrition into those slightly smaller meals. 

Nutrition Labels Aren’t Perfect

You might be doing your due diligence when it comes to reading the nutrition labels for all the foods that you’re eating, but did you know that those labels aren’t exactly 100% reliable? In fact, under FDA guidance, certain nutrients listed (calories, sugars, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium) can be 20% higher than the label says and still be in compliance. For example, if a lab analysis found 8 grams of fat per serving in a product whose label claimed it had 6, that product would be out of compliance. This can be especially alarming for those who are watching their sodium intake because of hypertension (and all seniors over 70 should limit their sodium intake to no more than 1.2 grams per day). And remember, the nutrition facts on that label tell you the amount of fat, calories, sodium, etc in one serving, not in the entire package. 

You’re at a Higher Risk of Dehydration

We all know that staying hydrated is important at any age, but did you know that older adults are more prone to dehydration, a condition which can easily land you in the hospital if you’re not careful? Why? There are a few reasons: glass of water

  • Just as your sense of taste diminishes as you age, so does your sensation of thirst. And by the time you feel thirsty, you’re already in the early stages of dehydration.
  • Your body composition changes as you age: older adults have less water in their bodies to start with than younger adults or children.
  • Symptoms of dehydration in older adults often go unrecognized, because the earliest signs, like dry mouth, fatigue, dizziness and muscle cramps, are nonspecific and could be easily attributed to other medical conditions, medications, or the natural effects of aging.

All of this means that you have to stay on top of your hydration. You’ve probably heard the old “8 glasses a day” rule, but that’s really just meant to be an easy number to remember – you might need less, or more if you’re working up a sweat. If you find it hard to chug 8 glasses of water, try sipping slowly all day out of a reinforced stainless steel water bottle (to keep your water cold), and adding some fruit peels or essences to make it more enjoyable, or changing things up by adding more fruits with high water content (like melon) into your diet. 

Grapefruit Can Be Your Enemy

Most fruits are your friend, as long as you can digest them and don’t have any allergies, because they’re filled with vitamins and minerals, but there can be exceptions. For example, if you’re a fan of the bitter grapefruit, you might want to talk to your doctor before you indulge: grapefruit and grapefruit juice can intensify the effects of some drugs, especially those for anxiety, high blood pressure, and insomnia, potentially making them dangerous.

Soy Isn’t Your Enemy 

Have you gotten caught up in the controversies surrounding soy? A lot of people think that soy is bad for you, especially if you’ve had breast cancer, because soy has isoflavones, or plant estrogens, and high levels of estrogen have been linked with higher breast cancer risk. But food sources of soy do not have high enough levels of isoflavones to boost risk, say experts. In fact, soy products can be a good protein source, especially if you’re not a big meat eater. 

Supplements Aren’t All That

illustration of supplements
If you have no serious health problems, you probably don’t need supplements- they can do more harm than good!

If you’re healthy, you probably don’t need a multivitamin: you should be getting the bulk of your nutrients from healthy, whole foods. In fact, not all researchers agree on the importance of supplements. A 2014 review by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, for example, recommended against daily multivitamins for adults who had no serious health problems, and said even seniors should be able to avoid using supplements as long as they’re continuing to eat healthy, so you might be better off spending your money on actual food. The only exceptions might be calcium, vitamin D, and B12 (as noted above), as well as omega-3, since you tend to have a hard time taking on this essential brain-cell-boosting nutrient as you get older. Talk to your doctor about what you might need. 

Hey, we all still want some surprises in our lives as we get older, but those surprises shouldn’t be related to your health. When it comes to eating right so you can keep yourself going strong, make sure you know the facts! The above info is a really good start – and we want to know if you’ve come across any nutrition surprises as you’ve gotten older. Now get back to those cookies and milk, we won’t tell!

Aging Into Poverty: What’s Going On and What Can We Do?

There are a lot of great things about getting older (goodbye, caring so much what other people think!), but we’re not going to sugarcoat it. There are a lot of things to worry about, as well. Your health might be top of your list, but how about your finances? How sure are you that you have enough to keep you secure through your retirement? The sad reality is that many seniors will not have enough money to last them for their whole lives, so many will age into poverty, and find it very difficult to get out of that situation. And we should all care about this issue, not just because it’s affecting our loved ones, friends, and neighbors, but because none of us are immune, no matter how well we think we’ve planned. So what’s going on, and can anything be done? 

How Big Is the Problem?

black and white picture of an older man sitting on a sidewalk
Poverty rates have been climbing for older adults.

If you read government data on older adults and poverty, you might be slightly distressed by the numbers, but you might not come away thinking that the financial distress of seniors is a dire problem in the U.S. But you’d be wrong. So what do the official numbers say? Well, according to the Congressional Research Service:

“The poverty rate for the aged population historically was higher than the rates for younger groups, but the aged have experienced lower poverty rates than children under age 18 since 1974 and lower rates than adults aged 18-64 since the early 1990s. In 2019, the 8.9% poverty rate among individuals aged 65 and older was lower than the 9.4% poverty rate among adults aged 18-64 and the 14.4% poverty rate among children under 18 years old.”

They point out that there are more older people living in poverty now than decades ago, but that they make up a smaller percentage of the population, since we have so many more people in our country now, and because older adults are living longer. That means that, as of 2019 (and not taking into account the financial stress that the pandemic has put on a lot of people), nearly 5 million adults over 65 are living in poverty.

And that huge number doesn’t even tell the whole story, unfortunately. The official measures of what “poverty” means are themselves inadequate. The report by the Congressional Research Service mentioned above even admits that there are certain factors that aren’t often taken into account when measuring poverty, like medical expenses, which can make a huge difference in how much money seniors have in their pockets.

“The official poverty measure used in the United States is defined using cash income only, before taxes, and is computed based on food consumption in 1955 and food costs in 1961, indexed to inflation. That definition…does not consider how certain other costs, such as housing or medical expenses, might affect [seniors] as well. After decades of research, the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) was developed to address some of the official poverty measure’s limitations. The SPM poverty rate for the aged population is higher than the official poverty rate (12.8% compared with 8.9% in 2019).”

The Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston has gone a step further, and created an Elder Economic Security Standard Index. This index provides a better understanding of financial hardship for seniors, taking into account household size, location, housing and health status, among other variables. The index shows that, in 2016, a majority of American seniors lacked “the financial resources required to pay for basic needs.” 

So the situation looks worse when we look at a more realistic measure of what it means to live on a fixed income, and when we look at more real-world scenarios, things are even more worrying. According to numbers out of the Government Accountability Office, being already in poverty isn’t the only issue for older adults: many are headed in that direction, with not much hope of turning things around. Nearly half (48%) of households headed by someone 55 and older lack some form of retirement savings, with that number rising to 62% for African Americans and 69% for Latinos. 

Not only that, but 29% of those who are retired or nearing the traditional retirement stage of life still have no retirement savings or a defined benefit plan, such as a job-based pension, and will need to rely on Social Security.

What’s Gone Wrong?

Don’t get us wrong: Social Security has been a great thing for seniors. It’s probably the reason that the poverty rate among seniors has fallen so much since the middle of the twentieth century. But it’s just not enough: the average Social Security check is a mere $1,543 a month, and about 40% of older Americans rely entirely on Social Security for their income. That’s because many companies no longer offer traditional pensions, lower-income Americans often aren’t offered a feasible way to save for retirement, and many workers are not in the position to contribute to a 401k. picture of a jar of coins pushed over with notes that say "will this be enough" and such

Relying on Social Security alone is especially problematic for older women, who on average, receive $4,500 less per year in Social Security benefits than men because they had lower lifetime earnings and worked fewer quarters to take time out for caregiving.

And these aren’t just issues for people on the lowest end of the income scale. Again according to those working at the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston on the Elder Economic Security Standard Index, “in every state, the share of older adults living ‘in the gap’ between the federal poverty line and the Elder Index is larger than the share living in poverty.” In other words, there are a lot of older adults who are actually living above the poverty line, and so don’t qualify for federal and state benefits like food stamps, housing grants, or  Medicaid, but are still struggling to live a comfortable life.  

Consider this: Fidelity estimates that a retired married couple, aged 65 in 2021, would need $300,000 saved to cover health care expenses in retirement, even with Medicare coverage. That’s a huge amount of money, for just that one living expense! So, even those who have been considered middle-class throughout their working life could end up struggling to pay the bills.

But we also need to remember that the problem starts even before retirement. The New School for Social Research has found that unemployed Americans aged 55 and older who want or need to work have been taking longer to find work than mid-career workers for the first time since 1973. This is partly due to the pandemic, and can have devastating effects on savings. 

According to Teresa Ghilarducci, an economist and director of the New School’s Retirement Equity Lab and a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, “With almost two million more people forced into unplanned retirement during the pandemic, vulnerable workers are forced out of the labor market at earlier ages…These few years can make or break an individual’s retirement. With fewer job prospects, and less savings, unplanned retirements can mean downward mobility or even poverty for vulnerable workers retiring before sixty-five.”

The problem, though, could also be, as Joe Seldner of the nonprofit Next Avenue puts it, “The millions over 55 without money or reasonable prospects to earn it are being ignored and overlooked, in large part I fear, because in a society driven by youth, older people don’t seem to matter all that much.”

So when we ask: “What’s gone wrong?” when it comes to making sure older adults in this country are financially secure, the answer is complicated, to say the least. Social Security is helpful, but inadequate, especially for women, jobs for older adults are hard to come by, saving for retirement can be a burden, healthcare expenses can be crippling…so what can we do?

Resources for Older Adultsgavel with the scale and a book that says judicial underneath it

As with any civil rights movement, we need to speak out about the issue of seniors’ financial security, and make sure everyone is seen and all voices are heard. It should be considered completely unacceptable that older adults in this country are struggling to survive, even after a lifetime of hard work. This issue needs to be a part of the national conversation, so speak up whenever you can, and consider contacting your members of Congress to urge them not to forget seniors when crafting legislation.

And as we work to make it a part of the national conversation, there are, fortunately, some nonprofits working on the problem, as well as resources for older adults who need assistance. For example:

  • The Stanford Center of Longevity is working on initiatives for seniors, including its “New Map of Life,” which “aims to envision a society that supports people to live secure and high-quality lives for a century or more,” exploring housing, health care and financial security.
  • The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College puts out briefing papers and publishes the “Squared Away” blog, which covers a wide range of topics regarding retirement security and older workers.
  • The National Council on Aging nonprofit offers many resources for older people and their caregivers, including a “Benefits Check-up” that helps you find out if you’re eligible for more than 2,500 benefits programs nationwide. And its “Resources Near Me” locator directs you to ones that can help with food, health care and technology.

And speaking of government programs that helps seniors who are struggling financially, the following are worth looking into:

  • Medicare Extra Help Program
  • Medicare Savings Program
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)
  • Seniors Farmer Market Nutrition Program
  • Meals on Wheels
  • Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
  • Tax credits and deductions, like:
    • Credit for the Elderly or Disabled
    • Standard Deduction for Seniors
    • Itemized deductions for medical expenses

The problem of older adults living in poverty is not going to go away on its own – if anything, more of us are going to be added to the group of those struggling. Now is the time to highlight this issue, and make sure everyone in this country can age in dignity and comfort.

Is “Middle-Age Spread” a Myth? Why Everything We Think We Know About Metabolism Might Be Wrong

You hit a certain age, then the years and the decades just seem to roll by. And all of those years rolling by tends to come with another kind of roll: those stubborn ones right around your waistline. But what can you do? You’re not 25 anymore, and at this point, it’s all about your metabolism, right? Actually, you might be wrong about that! In fact, what many of us tend to think about metabolism and aging might be wrong, and blaming that “middle-age spread” on your metabolism might mean you’re doing yourself a disservice: you’re not getting to the real root of the issue and making the healthy changes you should be. So what does the latest science say about metabolism and aging, and why does it matter?

The Study

Remember the days when you felt like you could eat all the late night pizza you wanted and it didn’t matter? Then middle-age and/or menopause hit and you felt like you were packing on the pounds and you couldn’t help it? Or how about that old “eating for two” when you’re pregnant thing, or having a hard time losing the baby weight, and envying guys for being fat-burning machines? Turns out, all of those assumptions (like our metabolism changes as we hit milestones in our life like puberty or menopause, or that men have “better” metabolic rates than women do) are all pretty much wrong.

illustration of a heavy older man looking down at a scale he's stepping on
A study shows that metabolism starts its decline later in life than you might think. 

And how do we know this? A major, groundbreaking study published in the journal Science this year that suggests your metabolism, the rate at which you burn calories, actually peaks much earlier and starts its inevitable decline later in life than you might think. 

It turns out that, before this study, we actually knew relatively little about how metabolism really works. According to the study’s principal investigator, Herman Pontzer, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University, “It was really clear that we didn’t have a good handle on how body size affects metabolism or how aging affects metabolism. These are basic fundamental things you’d think would have been answered 100 years ago.” So you’re not alone! 

But now, after 80 study co-authors combined efforts from a half dozen labs collected over 40 years, there now seems to be sufficient information to ask general questions about changes in metabolism over a lifetime. The researchers analyzed the average calories burned by more than 6,600 people, ranging in age from 8 days old to 95, as they went about their daily lives. And, while most previous large-scale studies measured how much energy the body uses for basic vital functions like breathing, digesting, and pumping blood (which only account for 50-70% of the calories we burn each day), this massive, combined study had the money and resources to actually look at the energy we expend doing all those little everyday tasks, like washing the dishes, walking the dog, breaking a sweat at the gym, and even just thinking or fidgeting.

To get the most accurate info on how our bodies use energy, they used the gold standard “doubly labeled water” method. This involved measuring calories burned by tracking the amount of carbon dioxide a person exhales during daily activities. They also had participants’ heights and weights and body fat percentage, which allowed them to look at fundamental metabolic rates. They knew that a smaller person would burn fewer calories than a bigger person, but they wanted to find out, correcting for size and percent fat, were their metabolisms different?

And what they found blew them away, because it challenged assumptions about how our metabolisms work, especially when it comes to how they change as we age.

The Findings

According to one study co-author, Jennifer Rood, PhD, Associate Executive Director for Cores and Resources at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, “As we age, there are a lot of physiological changes that occur in the phases of our life such as during puberty and in menopause. What’s odd is that the timing of our ‘metabolic life stages’ doesn’t appear to match the markers we associate with growing up and getting older.”

In other words, the study found that the things that we would expect to change our metabolism, such as growth spurts during puberty, turning 30, 40, or even 50, pregnancy, and menopause, didn’t really do all that much. What they did find was that metabolism was different for everybody, but that there are four distinct stages of life when it comes to how much we’re individually burning:caucasian baby in overalls sitting on grass

  • Infancy – While newborns actually have metabolisms similar to their mothers for the first month of their life, their metabolism shoots up after that, and by age 1, babies are burning 50% more energy than adults.
  • Age 1 – Age 20 – Metabolic rate gradually starts to decline after age 1, decreasing by about 3% a year until age 20.
  • Age 20 – Age 60 – Now here’s where things really get wild. This is when you’d guess that metabolic rate really drops off, right? Wrong. Between these ages, metabolism is actually at its most steady. 
  • Age 60 and over – The data suggest that our metabolisms don’t really start to decline again until after age 60, and that the slowdown is gradual, only 0.7% a year – and a person in their 90s needs 26% fewer calories each day than someone in midlife.

In addition, the study found that, controlling for body fat and muscle percentage, women’s metabolisms were essentially the same as men’s. They also found, maybe most unsurprisingly of anything in the study, that individual metabolic rates varied significantly: some subjects had rates 25% above average for their age, while others had rates 25% below average.

So what does this all mean? Well, it might leave you scratching your head, or maybe shaking it in disbelief, because your experience of slowdown and/or weight gain from your 40s on seems very real. Even Pontzer admits, “I’m in my 40s, so I expected to see some evidence to back up my subjective experience that my metabolism is slowing down. It feels that way to me! But it’s not really what’s happening.” So now what?

What This Means for You

Maybe calling middle-age spread a myth is going too far. After all, weight gain as we age is very real for a lot of people: in fact, research shows the average U.S. adult gains one to two pounds a year from early to middle adulthood. But this research shows us that there are contributing factors other than metabolism. According to Pontzer, “Your stress level, your schedule, your hormone levels, your energy levels are different in your 40s or 50s compared to your 20s. If you’re gaining weight it’s easy to say, ‘Oh, that’s my metabolism.’ It’s almost like a scapegoat. Now that we know it’s not metabolism, we can focus on some of those other factors.”

Research has also shown that metabolism and weight aren’t always as closely linked as you imagine. “It’s not about how many calories you burn, it’s about whether you’re burning more than you’re eating,” says Pontzer. “Just because you have a high metabolism doesn’t mean you’re better at matching your intake to your output.”

So that means sticking to the basics of maintaining a healthy weight:

  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet consisting primarily of whole foods in the form of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains.
  • Maintaining an active lifestyle with a goal of at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week. This includes focusing on strength training to increase or maintain lean muscle mass. Lost muscle mass as we get older may be partly to blame for weight gain, the researchers say, since muscle burns more calories than fat.
  • Getting enough sleep, which for most people means 7-8 hours a night.woman meditating outside on the ground
  • Managing stress through mindfulness, meditation, or other relaxing activities.

But beyond looking at the question of why we gain weight as we age (which maybe this study didn’t really help to answer!), the study’s findings could also be important for your health in other ways as you age. For example, knowing how the body’s metabolism works could help doctors treat cancer more effectively. The study also sheds new light on the aging process, specifically how cell activity changes as you grow older. “There’s an age-related decline that happens across the body’s systems,” says Pontzer. “One of the exciting things from the study is now we have a map of how this change is happening at the metabolic level — because metabolism is a reflection of how busy your body is.”

Knowing what’s happening in our cells as they age could help us figure out how to deal with all of the diseases that seem to come with aging. According to Rozalyn Anderson, professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health Anderson, who studies the biology of aging, “Around age 60 is when we start to see the emergence and increased risk for age-related conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease or neurodegenerative diseases. When I saw this data, I was immediately struck by the fact that there’s also an intrinsic change in innate metabolism that begins at the same time.”

The bottom line is, researchers have brought us another step closer to the “how’s” of metabolism, but not really the “why’s.” It might be fascinating, or even hopeful, to know that, if you are gaining weight as you age, it’s not just an inevitable change in your metabolism – or it might be incredibly frustrating! If that’s not the reason, then what is?! Well, keep watching this space, as they say: researchers are hard at work. And, while you’re waiting, make any little changes to your lifestyle that could benefit your health (and your waistline), and know that they might just crack the code one of these days.

Can “Age-Gap” Relationships Work?

It’s one of those age-old questions: does age really matter? Well, maybe for some things, like voting, driving, drinking, life insurance, senior discounts, enrolling in Medicare…but when it comes to the truly important things in life, like relationships, is age just a number? Are “age-gap,” or “May-December,” romances doomed to fail, or does love conquer all in the end, even the date on your birth certificate?

Why Do We Make Such a Big Deal About Age Gaps?

There are differences between partners in all relationships, right? No two people are exactly alike, and each partner might bring a different religion, political viewpoint, cultural background, or sense of humor into a relationship – and it’s not often that we sneer at, mock, or say we’re “grossed out” by those differences. So why does seeing a couple with an age gap elicit such responses from people?

young man hugging an older woman while holding a red heart balloon
About 1.3% of couples are in a relationship in which the woman is much older than the man. 

Well, there might be a few reasons. First of all, how do we actually define an age-gap relationship? According to most experts, this type of relationship is usually characterized by a difference in age of at least 10 years, and according to most statistics, the most common age gap between heterosexual partners in the Western world is only about 3 years. So, the first issue for most people is the fact that these relationships seem unusual; in fact, while there is little data on age differences in relationships, the most recent and relevant data suggests that around 8.5% of the American population are in relationships where the age difference is 5-15 years – and only 1.3% of couples are in a relationship in which the woman is much older than the man. 

So these relationships might be seen as outside of the norm in some ways; not only that, but there are some that suggest it might even feel biologically wrong to us on some deeper level. While the most likely reason that we end up with people who are a similar age to us is that we tend to meet them at certain stages of our lives (like in college, at an entry-level job, or even in a retirement community), some experts believe that there is a little dash of evolutionary psychology thrown into our choice for a just slightly older man or younger woman. 

Their point is that, in heterosexual relationships, a slightly older man can be seen as still young enough to bring home the bacon, but old enough to be financially stable; a younger woman, on the other hand, can be seen as a good choice to produce healthy babies. All of this should be taken with a grain of salt, though – hopefully we’ve moved beyond looking at relationships as simple biological urges!

Finally, there are just certain ideas that seem to have been drilled into us about relationships between people who are very different ages, including the fact that they somehow must include some sort of power imbalance between the two partners. For some reason, it can be hard for people to imagine an age-gap relationship existing without a conditional reason, like money, sex or lifestyle. The older partner can be seen as holding financial power over the younger one (especially if they are a man), and the younger can even be seen as holding some sort of “I can find a new younger partner if I want” power over the older. Not only that, but some people assume that the younger person is “giving something up” (such as the possibility of having children) to be with the older person, who, again, might have more money – and power. 

All of this brings us to the possible issues with May-December relationships, which tend to actually come from the outside rather than from within the partnership.  

The Potential Pitfalls

No relationship is perfect, even those with the supposed “ideal” three-year age gap, but there can be issues that are pretty specific to age-gap relationships. It’s true that there can be issues of power imbalances in age-gap relationships, and if you’re in one of them, the most important thing to look out for is “contempt,” according to Silva Neves, an accredited psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist: “The older person may say things like, ‘I know better than you,’ to coerce the younger one to always do what they want. And the younger one may say things like, ‘I’m sexier than you,’ to humiliate the older one. Of course, this type of language can be used for a bit of innocent humor that is shared by the two people. But when it is done to be contemptuous and on a regular basis, it can be toxic.”

However, it’s more likely that these ideas about power imbalances are all just assumptions about what’s going on in an age-gap relationship. But that’s not saying there can’t be other possible problems with these relationships: according to Rachel Sussman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York, “You can see varied cultural references, disapproval from family and friends, and perhaps community disapproval, as well. It might be hard to relate to each other’s peer groups, too.” young woman toasting in a limo with an older man in a suit

The biggest problems among the above issues, though, seem to be the ones coming from outside sources, like family, friends, and the wider community. For example, think about the way we talk about people involved in age-gap relationships: a man with a much younger woman is “creepy” or looking for a “trophy wife”; a woman with a much older man is a “gold digger” and uninterested in the relationship; an older woman with a much younger man is a “cougar.” These outside criticism and judgements, especially if they come from part of your support network, can be devastating and put a strain on any relationship. 

All of this means that if you’re in an age-gap relationship, it’s important to stay emotionally connected, and invested in and committed to the relationship, so you can rise above any unhelpful outside opinions. 

Better with Age (Difference)?

With all of the above being said, when it comes to human relationships, age can be totally subjective, and dating someone who’s a lot older or younger than you might be the right fit for you! After all, it’s all about humans being humans, and there’s nothing more human than feeling a loving bond with someone else, no matter who they are or how old they are.

And you know what? There can be advantages to age-gap relationships; for example: 

  • A younger partner can give you a renewed sense of energy and vitality.
  • The older you are, the more likely you are to know what you want out of life, which can mean wasting less of your time and your partner’s time with a relationship that isn’t going anywhere. two sets of feet in a bed
  • An older partner is also more likely to know what they want in bed! (And a younger partner can bring the stamina to help make that happen…)
  • The relationship might actually be more balanced: an older partner is less likely to make their happiness dependent on their partner, so neither partner feels pressured to give up their own life and interests. 
  • With age comes more experience and maturity (usually!), so an older partner might be better able to deal with problems that come up in the relationship.
  • Having different outlooks on life can bring a freshness to a relationship, and give you endless things to talk about.
  • The older partner might be more financially stable in the beginning, but the younger one might stay healthier longer, and be able to provide support in other ways as you both age. 

How Do You Know If It Can Work for You?

When it comes to relationships with a large difference in age, it might be right for you and it might not – it’s all about you and your partner as individuals. But if there were one magical secret to having a long-lasting age-gap relationship, it would be communication! To make things work, especially in the face of possible disapproval, you need to have an open, honest, loving, and communicative relationship – and you need to think seriously about the following questions:

  • Is this going to be a long-term thing? – If the relationship is casual and more focused on the short-term, then the fun of it will most likely outweigh any of the issues you’d have to navigate to make it work long-term. So if you’re both on board with a less committed “fling,” go for it!
  • Do you share the same goals? – If things are looking more serious, though, you’ll need to talk about what your long-term goals look like. For example, is one of you ready to retire and travel the world, while the other one still has a whole list of career goals to accomplish? Or even more simply, do you both agree on how you want to spend your weekends? If there’s conflict between you in terms of what you want out of life, there might be trouble ahead. 
  • Do either of you want children (or does one of you already have them)? – This is where biology does actually come into play, and age can be more than just a meaningless number. If you are headed into a long-term relationship, you need to be open about whether either of you wants kids (or wants to be a parent to an older partner’s children from a previous relationship), and what bringing children into your relationship would look like: can you still have children? Do you want to adopt or foster? And are you willing to parent young children at an older age? drawing of people in different colors forming a circle
  • Do you have the support of your social network? – Again, one of the biggest wedges that drives people apart in age-gap relationships is the disapproval of friends and family – studies have even shown that our social support network’s disapproval can actually make us feel less invested in our relationships. If you’re with a much older or younger partner, you’ll need to find ways to deal with outside opinions, and you’ll also need to make sure that you can successfully bring together your groups of friends, so neither of you feels like you’re sacrificing your friendships.
  • Are you willing to work on your sexual relationship? – As much as we all want our love life to be effortlessly hot and steamy, it just doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. Issues of mismatched libido or erectile dysfunction might come up, so be ready to get awkward if need be, as well as be willing to explore, adapt, and find ways to relate to each other sexually as time goes by.

When it comes down to it, only you know what’s right for you, not nosy outsiders. If you find the person who is right for you, if you are in a loving, respectful relationship, and if you share interests and life goals, you can have a strong, satisfying relationship no matter what the calendar says! Love is love – isn’t that all that matters?

Want to Join the Century Club? 10 Tips for Getting to 100

Does anyone remember those feel-good segments they used to do on morning news shows, highlighting smiling seniors who were celebrating their 100th birthdays? Those special people were among the few to join the century club, and everyone always eagerly asked them how they did it; the answers could be anything from the simple (eating healthy and having good friends!) to the slightly, well, unusual (a shot of gin every day), but they all seemed to have their own ideas of how they managed to make it to a healthy 100.

different colored balloons with 100 on them
With a few tips, you can become one of “the few” who reach 100 years old.

And, you know, we say “the few” to reach 100, but more and more people are reaching that milestone these days; in fact, according to the CDC, the number of Americans 100 years old or older increased by nearly 41% between 2000 and 2014! So reaching 100 is an attainable goal, within certain constraints – your genes do play a part in your life expectancy, but maybe less than you might think.

According to Dan Beuttner, author of the book The Blue Zones, which looks at five places around the world with the highest populations of people who live to 100, “For the average American, about 20% of life expectancy is genes, and the other 80% is lifestyle.” Beuttner points out that “Healthy habits can help eliminate the diseases that tend to shorten your life – such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.” So, while there is no magic potion – or even one lifestyle change that will work for everyone and keep every disease at bay – there are some things you can do to keep yourself as healthy as possible, and moving towards a healthy and happy 100th birthday!

1. Get Off Your You-Know-What

You know what’s one thing we haven’t put on this list? Smoking! Too obvious, right? Well, health experts are now saying that “sitting is the new smoking,” meaning that doing too much of it can be as bad as lighting up a cigarette. In fact, one study found that those who spent more than six hours a day sitting had a 19% higher mortality rate than those who spent less than three hours of their leisure time on the couch. 

Sounds like it’s time to ditch that couch potato lifestyle! Simply getting up and walking around once every 30 minutes is a good start, but you’ll definitely need to get more active to see the most benefits. According to research published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, women aged 65-99 who averaged just 30 minutes of light physical activity (dusting, washing dishes) each day reduced their risk of dying by 12% and those who got an hour of moderate activity (brisk walking, taking the stairs) lowered their mortality risk by 39%.

And if you want to kick things up another notch, consider adding in some more intense activities: for example, adults who reported frequently playing tennis lived 9.7 years longer than people who were sedentary. Not only that, but according to several large studies, while walking is a great way to increase your longevity, runners live an average of 3 years longer than non-runners, and for every hour you run, you add around 7 hours to your life! Wow! Now where did we put those running shoes…

2. Watch Your Waistlinea senior couple running along the beach

Maybe it’s not a surprise to you, but being overweight or obese has been linked to an increased mortality risk, mostly because not maintaining a healthy weight can lead to some of the major diseases that could cut your life short, like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. And the advice to combat this issue probably won’t surprise you all that much, either: eat right, and get plenty of exercise. But maybe you haven’t heard these stats: according to one study, individuals who had at least five home-cooked meals per week were 28% less likely to be overweight, and 24% less likely to have excess body fat than individuals who ate less than three home-cooked meals per week. So maybe it’s time to take up cooking!

3. Pay Attention to Your Proteins and Fats

It’s no secret that red meat isn’t great for you: in fact, eating it can increase the likelihood of dying from cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, diabetes, infections, kidney disease, and liver disease. Simply reducing the amount of red meat you eat, or even swapping out red meat for chicken is a great start, but your best bet is to add other protein sources into your diet. Try:

  • Pulses, like beans, chickpeas, peas, and lentils. Studies suggest just one serving a day can lower your bad cholesterol.
  • Fish, which will also give you a boost of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Nuts– In a study of nearly 120,000 adults, those who ate nuts every day were 20% less likely to have died during the 30-year follow up than those who reported eating no nuts.

Sure, nuts are high in fat, but it’s actually the healthy, unsaturated kind. And while we’re on the subject, while you’re swapping out unhealthy protein sources, don’t forget to also swap out unhealthy fats: a recent study found that for every 2% increase in trans fat in your diet, your risk of premature death jumps by 16%, and just a 5% increase in saturated fat boosts your risk of early death by 8%.

older man picking up trash along the beach while holding a black garbage bag
Find you purpose in life, such as using your spare time to volunteer.

4. Find Your Purpose

Some people’s whole goal in life is taking early retirement, but you know what? It’s not right for everyone – if you love your work, there can be health benefits to continuing on with something that gives you a purpose in life. But if that’s not how you feel about your job, think about how you can bring purpose to your life after retirement, whether that’s volunteering or getting involved in other ways. Think about this: according to a 2016 review of 10 studies, a sense of purpose in life can be linked to an 83% reduction in death from all causes and a significantly lower risk of cardiovascular events such as stroke or heart attack – so find what you love and get out there!

5. Keep on Top of Your Health

If you want to live to 100, you need to make friends with your doctor! Ok, we don’t mean it’s time to take them out to dinner; you need to stay on top of your health, and that means not skipping your annual physical, and making sure to talk to your doctor about referrals for screenings for the common cancers that shorten many people’s lives. So get that colonoscopy, mammogram, prostate check, or pap smear, and talk to a dermatologist about melanoma risks. 

6. Be Wholly Nutritious

One way to live a longer, healthier life is to swap out simple carbs for whole grain or unprocessed options; for example, consider this amazing stat: swapping a little more than two servings of your normal white rice to brown rice will lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 16%, and the added fiber in the brown rice will also help to lower your bad cholesterol levels. Not only that, but in one study, people who ate whole grains had a 20% lower risk of death than those who ate little or no whole grains! 

7. Breathe Out the Negative, Breathe in the Positive!

Stress can be toxic, but, hey, it’s a part of almost all of our lives, right? There’s no magic wand you can wave to get rid of it, but it is important to manage it, as well as to bring more positivity into your life. Keep stress under control by meditating, practicing yoga, or even just engaging in simple breathing activities; consider pushing out negativity and adding in positivity by starting a gratitude journal – according to one study, people who are more grateful feel healthier and report fewer aches and pains.benefits of optimism infographic

Not only that, but your outlook on life matters, so try to ditch the pessimism: A recent study out of Harvard University found that people who scored highest on measures of optimism had a 16% lower risk of death from cancer, a 38% lower risk of death from heart disease and respiratory disease, and a 39% lower risk of dying from stroke. Well, looks like it all comes back to finding your happiness, and that might include the following tip…

8. Stay Connected

There’s not really too much need to push the benefits of having friends and other close connections in your life, is there – the joy you get from friendships, sexual relationships, and even having a pet kind of speaks for itself, right? But just in case, consider this: having strong social connections (in other words, you actually spend meaningful time connecting with friends and other loved ones) has been shown to reduce your risk of early death by 50%! 

As for sex, staying connected to someone in that way can also help you live longer: one study has linked having sex at least once a week to having longer telomeres (the protective caps on your DNA strands), which generally equals longer life. And pets? Even connecting with our furry friends can keep us alive: studies show that both dog and cat owners are less likely to have heart attacks, or die of heart disease or stroke. 

One final thing to consider: on the flip side of all of this, some health experts believe that loneliness can be as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So reach out and touch someone!

older man in a park practicing tai chi
Stay balanced by trying some tai chi, which has many benefits. 

9. Keep Your Focus

Eye problems can be a nuisance, but not taking care of them can actually shorten your life! In a study published in JAMA Ophthalmology, women who had cataract surgery were less likely to die of any cause than women who did not have their vision corrected. Keep your independence, and your health, and take care of those peepers!

10. Stay Balanced

Did you know that elderly women who fall and break a hip are five times more likely to die within a year than women of the same age who don’t break a hip? That’s an extremely worrying statistic, so take it to heart and prevent falls before they start happening! One way to do this? Maintain your balance by practicing tai chi, and keep yourself out of the hospital and enjoying a long life. 

Age is just a number, but most of us want to see that number steadily rising, right? And not only that, but even as the years go by, we want to continue to feel vital, healthy, and happy – so try the simple tips above and see how far you can go!