The New Middle Age: Does It Really Mean What We Think It Does?

The New Middle Age: Does It Really Mean What We Think It Does?

In 2022, “middle age” isn’t what you might think—now 40 to 50, middle age (in theory) is older than ever before—and everyone’s choosing their own path as we live longer lives. Gone are the days of hiding grays, being cagey about your feelings around Botox (one way or another), or believing bikinis are solely reserved for the 20-something crowd (just ask Elizabeth Hurley). In 2022, people are stepping up in middle age, and they’re proud of it. It’s not a one-size-fits-all experience, either. We asked psychologists, dermatologists, makeup artists, and more to help us paint a picture of middle age (in all its glory)—including how we view middle age, what we still want to learn about middle age, and how to take care of ourselves in middle age, too.

People all around us are proof that age is merely a number. With 90-year-olds running marathons, 70-year-olds becoming kings, and so much more, life is full of possibilities.

Middle age has often been used to account for everything from surprising mid-life changes (like those chin hairs you’ve suddenly started sprouting decades after puberty has come to an end) to out-of-character choices (who hasn’t heard the joke about the person who surprisingly purchases a cherry red sports car).

However, Carrie Ditzel, a clinical psychologist at Baker Street Behavioral Health, says that middle age is best described as a time when people get a bird’s eye view of their lives and find themselves faced with a decision about what comes next. So what really is middle age? And with life expectancy constantly evolving, is it still what we think it is? Ahead, experts help us better understand the concept of middle age.

When does middle age begin?

Middle age is better thought of as a social term rather than a medical one according to Sonia Sehgal, M.D., F.A.C.P., geriatrician, UCI Health and clinical professor, department of internal medicine, UCI School of Medicine, since it’s mostly used to describe the transitional period between young adulthood and old age. “It is a time of reflection for many people as they think back on their life lived so far and then plan for the years ahead,” she adds.

While there is no specific number that defines middle age, most people consider it to begin sometime in their 40s-50s, according to Dr. Sehgal. However, she advises against getting too caught up in those numbers. Not only does middle age shift as life expectancy increases, but not everyone agrees with when it starts. A 2015 study showed that the younger a person was the earlier they thought middle age would begin, with nearly 30,000 people involved in the study saying they thought middle age begun as early as 30 years old (yeesh!). However, for older participants, that number grew higher indicating just how varied our perceptions of middle age can be.

For example, Katie Hill, M.D., CMO of Nudj Health, and board-certified psychiatrist says most people consider middle age to occur between the ages of 46 and 65 while some other health experts even believe that middle age spans from 40-60 (give or take 10 years). To use those numbers means to believe that middle age runs from 30 to 70! Which is the better part of a person’s whole life.

Does middle age really matter?

Just like beauty, the impact of middle age seems to lie in the eye of the beholder. “Middle age experiences differ vastly from person to person,” explains Dr. Hill. “Some people describe middle age as a time they feel their confidence increases as internalized experiences from young adulthood help them succeed in unexpected and new ways. Others begin to contemplate their values, prior experiences, transitioning responsibilities, and want to create change to have a more meaningful life.”

While she says this contemplation can sometimes result in that oft-mocked mid-life crisis, Dr. Hill says that those seemingly out-of-characteristic changes may actually be the result of a simple “desire for positive change” that prompts some people to go out and buy that sports car they’ve always wanted or to suddenly change careers.

Ditzel agrees that what outsiders sometimes view as a crisis may actually be a reassessment of what’s important. “For example, we often think of people who make a large purchase, quit a job, leave a marriage, or have an affair when we describe a midlife crisis,” she says, adding that those actions may actually be the results of someone who is struggling with their own bird’s eye view of their life.

Are there physical effects of middle age?

While some of us are quick to point to the passing pages of the calendar for the reason why our bodies are changing in new ways, Dr. Hill says those “middle age” issues may actually be in our heads. “Middle age is an area of active research, as a recent ground-breaking study showed that metabolism does not decrease in middle age as previously thought,” she says. “Instead, lifestyle changes such as decreased physical activity and poor diet choices are responsible for much of the development of chronic disease and resulting lower quality of life in middle age.” But, that doesn’t mean you need to cut out things you enjoy, simply partake in moderation.

Is middle age what we think it is?

Scientifically, the term middle age does not denote a specific period in the life cycle, according to Dr. Sehgal. “There are no specific biomarkers that indicate transition into or out of middle age,” she says, adding that it is still an important time to renew your personal investment in your health with a specific focus on preventative measures. “Preventive screenings (mammogram, colonoscopy), immunizations, lab tests for early detection of high cholesterol and diabetes are important to have done to initiate a treatment plan to prevent future complications.”

That being said, Ditzel says it’s not unusual for people to start feeling a bit worse for the wear once they hit a certain age, both physically and emotionally. “Middle age can come with physical changes, like beginning to feel ‘aches and pains.’ However, it is psychologically significant because it can be a time where we become more resolute in our sense of self and feel more stability,” she says adding that the strong emotions and impulsivity of youth has begun to wane, which brings about a settling down period. “Research has noted that there may be a dip in feelings of satisfaction during these midlife years as we wrestle with this, but the struggle is typically followed by an increased sense of purpose and satisfaction—or what some call the ‘wisdom’ of later life.”

Additionally, Ditzel says some people may even find themselves entering a whole new chapter at that mid-point of life. “For example, children may be getting older and less dependent while the parents of middle-aged individuals are getting older and more dependent.”

Leaning into middle age

Dr. Hill says that one of the wonderful parts of middle age is that most people have more autonomy and ability to make changes than at earlier life stages. “Leading a values-driven life has been shown to lead to more life satisfaction, health, and longevity.” To do this she suggests getting a bit morbid. She says to try identifying your own funeral and imagining what qualities you’d want to hear people celebrating about you. “Health, family, service, devotion, loyalty are all commonly cited as being important,” she says. “Once you have a values list, think about how you spend your time and who you spend it with: family, friends, work, hobbies, etcetera.” Dr. Hill says you should label your choices as leading you closer or further from those values. “Pick one area where you can make a change to move closer to your values.”

Of course, if your struggle with aging has less to do with the legacy you leave behind and more about what your future holds, Dr. Sehgal says it might be time to adjust your perspective. “Aging is a wonderful and natural part of the human life cycle,” she says. “To age well we must embrace the natural changes that occur in the mind and body. Approaching the aging process with a positive outlook and hopeful spirit eases the transition.” Doing this may even help you get to old age, as some studies have shown that people who have positive views about aging tend to live longer.

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