When are you Middle aged?

For most people in the industrialized world, middle age can be said to run from around the age of 40 years to about 60 years. Four centuries ago, 30 years was a normal adult life-span. As life expectancy has increased, the phenomenon known as middle age has come into being. It is ironic that these extra years of life that we now have – compared to our ancestors -are so often thought of as a source of worry and depression.

Middle age, like all phases of the human life cycle, has its own problems. Although some of these are real enough and inevitable, others can be seen as products of muddled thinking. In many pre-industrial cultures the generation which had passed beyond childbearing was considered to have an important role in guiding and advising the younger members of the community. Many psychologists believe the same should be true in modern society. They argue that middle-aged people have an important part to play in helping the next and succeeding generations, teaching them a sense of the continuity of history and their place in the world, passing on the wisdom of experience, and promoting in younger people a healthy sense of curiosity, ambition and humour.

The fact that many middle-aged people feel unwanted and ‘passed it’ may partly be a result of the child- and youth-centred culture of modern times, particularly of the consumer marketplace. However, many people discover that childhood, adolescence and young adulthood do not always live up to expectations – and, on the contrary, may be riddled with insoluble problems and anxiety; and similarly middle age can, surprisingly to some, turn out to be the time of life’s deepest satisfaction.

People in this age group often see it as a time for looking back on their lives. This is useful and important, both to ensure that their remaining years are as comfortable, balanced and illness-free as possible, and so that they are in a position to pass on the lessons of experience to younger people. Middle-aged people still have the chance to correct some of the effects of physical deterioration that may have accrued through an inactive or overindulgent lifestyle. Aspects that may need to be considered with reference to health are eating and drinking habits, smoking, weight reduction and exercise. Middle-aged people would also be wise to look at the balance between their work and leisure, at occupational success and future expectations, and at their marriage and family life. Such a revaluation can often be a sobering experience, leading to a new discovery of self and others. It can also be a shock, perhaps brought about suddenly by a minor illness, a career setback or some other cause. For some people this is a time of temptation, when it appears all too easy to find solace in drink, overwork, sexual adventures or other forms of escapism. A more honest and fruitful approach involves talking openly to a partner, close friend or family doctor.

Physical aging

From the age of about 25 years we all start to age, but for most people their twenties and thirties are free from serious illness or any noticeable deterioration. With the onset of middle age, however, well-attested biological changes begin to take place. It is important to remember, nevertheless, that people who take the trouble to understand the way their emotions, mental state and bodily well-being can affect each other are less likely to suffer from and be depressed by the gradual physical deterioration of middle age. Keeping young is partly a state of mind. Middle-aged people are often prone to rheumatic pains, circulatory disorders, high blood pressure and coronary, respiratory and digestive problems. Some of the specific physical changes that occur are discussed below.

Bone loss begins to occur. The skeleton gradually starts to thin as calcium is withdrawn from the bones. In women this is especially the case after they have passed the menopause. This loss can be partly ameliorated by eating calcium-rich foods and taking vitamin D.

Physical strength declines gradually through the forties and fifties. Much of this loss of muscle power is a result of disuse, and is preventable by keeping physically active – although physical exercise should be built up in gradual stages, not embarked on all in a rush. Up to 15 minutes gentle exercise a day helps protect the body’s joints from strain and stress. Suitable forms of exercise for this age group include jogging, golf, cycling, swimming and walking. Walking is especially popular among the middle-aged, although it is important to pay attention to posture to gain benefit from it. Additional advantages to be gained from such exercise are the benefits of fresh air, and the opportunities for company. Brain cells are lost almost from the moment growth stops at the end of adolescence. By middle age, most people find that their short-term memory becomes less reliable, that their powers of quick thinking are somewhat reduced and that they are less able to learn new things. Mental and physical exercise can slow this deterioration to a considerable extent; the ability to learn is, as at any age, largely dependent on an individual’s willingness to learn.

Linked to a certain extent to the loss of brain cells is the gradual decline in effectiveness of the various sense organs. Eyesight may start to weaken, especially when it comes to seeing long distances and reading small print; and the older a person is, the more light they usually require in order to read comfortably. Middle-aged people also begin to lose their taste buds, and their sense of smell diminishes. They often begin to find high-pitched sounds hard to hear. People who have eaten sugar-rich foods over the years, and those who have neglected to keep their teeth clean and healthy, can find that in middle age they are beset with teeth problems. The only real solution to this problem is to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

The loss of hair, initially from the temples and scalp, can affect younger men, but it is more common in middle age. The tendency to baldness is hereditary. It is a natural and, as far as anyone knows, irreversible process, and is unconnected with a man’s general state of health.

Most middle-aged people in the industrialized world start to put on weight. This may in part be because they lead an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, but it is mainly because of an imbalance between food intake and exercise. Besides more exercise, the answer is to reduce the consumption of refined carbohydrate foods to a minimum and to increase the consumption of high-fibre, high-starch foods. Reducing fat intake by about one-third, which can easily be achieved by cutting all the fat off meat, changing to skimmed milk and using polyunsaturated spread rather than butter. Works wonders for weight control. It has the added advantage of reducing arteriosclerosis, which in turn diminishes the chances of a heart attack – the biggest single killer of middle-aged men.

The sense organs

The deterioration of sight or hearing during middle age may mean that it becomes increasingly difficult to communicate with other people or to function in domestic situations.

The reduction of elasticity of the eye lens is a major cause of sight problems. A tough lens makes it more difficult to focus close objects on the retina. When reading a newspaper the letters will appear vague and only when the paper is held at a considerable distance from the eyes will the letters come into focus. It is possible to correct this inconvenience with reading-glasses. People who have been wearing glasses since their youth, because they were unable to see distant objects clearly (shortsightedness), will now need two pairs of glasses or one pair with two different kinds of lenses (bifocals).

Deterioration of hearing may start as early as the twenty-fifth year of life. Early symptoms include a greater difficulty in hearing higher tones. Initially this does not cause any problems during a conversation because speech does not usually contain many high-pitched tones, but it will eventually become more and more difficult to carry on a conversation in noisy surroundings.