Less stress… more sex! A new book says that middle age is the start of a golden era
08:43 GMT, 9 March 2012
Not long after his 41st birthday, David Bainbridge did something he’d been longing to do since he was eight years old: he splashed out on a shiny blue Lotus sports car.
It wasn’t the type of transport typically favoured by his fellow Cambridge dons, and no doubt it raised a few eyebrows.
So far, however, no one’s quite dared put it to the portly zoologist and father-of-three that he could well be in the throes of a midlife crisis.
Golden era: Author David Bainbridge argues that middle age is the most fulfilling stage of life for many
Which is just as well, because anyone doing so would probably be pinned to a wall for a passionate three-hour lecture. ‘Crisis What mid-life crisis’ he’d begin, before dissecting all our cliched assumptions.
As Bainbridge hastens to clarify in his new book about middle age: ‘I did not buy the car to alleviate angst about my physical or mental deterioration, or to salve my awareness of impending mortality, or to ensnare young women miraculously attracted to ageing chubby men in bright blue cars. I bought it because I wanted it.’
The fact that he was 41 at the time, in the perilous foothills of middle age, is ‘mere coincidence’. (Of course it is, Dr Bainbridge.)
Not only is the male midlife crisis a big fat myth, he claims, but middle age itself has been unfairly traduced as the grim decline between youth and old age, when the nuts and bolts start to rust over and nothing works quite as it should.
Indeed, Dr Bainbridge wants us to adjust our bi-focals and learn to view our middle years as a particularly special part of our lives.
Drawing primarily on zoological and evolutionary science, he has spent years studying the phenomenon of middle age.
The first thing we need to take on board, he says, is that humans are the only creatures on the planet who have a distinct middle age, as opposed to a gradual slide towards death.
So how do we know we’re not simply decaying Because between 40 and 60, there’s plenty of evidence to show our bodies are still developing.
So fear not the spreading of your waist, the hairs that sprout in odd places or even the urge to buy a flashy new car. If you’re approaching midlife, you may be about to have the time of your life.
WHY SEX STARTS TO FEEL SEXIER
Midlifers have sex more often than young people think they do. In one U.S. study, 73 per cent of men and women aged 57 to 65 said they were still having regular sex.
In fact, many middle-aged people are more sexually active than when they were younger, and they often express greater satisfaction with their sex lives.
On the face of it, though, this doesn’t make sense. First, our senses — such as touch, taste and smell — deteriorate with age, so the sexual information that reaches the brain has declined in quality.
While senses such as smell deteriorate over time, this doesn't appear to have an impact on middle aged couples' sex lives, with many claiming to still have an active physical relationship
It’s also undeniable that nature, having lost interest in us as potential breeders, has allowed us to become less attractive.
Apart from developing wrinkles, 80 per cent of people aged 40 to 60 tend to lay down more fat (though that’s also a positive, as fat is the ultimate survival tool).
None of this, however, seems to matter much to our husbands and wives.
To compensate for the changes in our bodies, says Bainbridge, it’s likely that our brains rewire in middle age to make long-term partners seem more alluring than they really are.
Why Because it makes evolutionary sense for couples to have an added incentive to stay together until their children have grown up.
And what about our hormone levels in midlife Well, they’re on the wane, too — but, actually, that is in many ways another plus.
For example, high levels of androgen, a male sex hormone, have been linked to aggression and low achievement, and have led to women rating men as poor sexual partners.
With lower levels of androgen, combined with a marginal waning in sexual function, a sexual encounter tends to last longer. And few men or women would complain about that.
HAPPINESS IS… GETTING HITCHED
Nearly 90 per cent of all humans have married by the age of 49. And there’s much evidence to show that marriage helps prevent depression and generally makes people happier.
Throughout adult life, the percentage of men who are married or cohabiting steadily increases, whereas in women it peaks somewhere in middle age — between 45 and 55.
This discrepancy has two main causes: women are likely to outlive their husbands, and women are less likely than men to remarry after separation or bereavement. Indeed, women are five times less likely than men to wed again after they are widowed.
Surveys have found that middle aged men are more likely to stay married and report more satisfaction with their relationships than women do
Middle-aged men not only tend to stay married, but also report more satisfaction with their marriage than women do. (The peak years for divorce are in our 20s and 30s.)
Both sexes, though, are still likely to find many positive characteristics in their partners, even after many years of marriage. These include tolerance, trustworthiness and a comfortable level of give-and-take.
To a young person, that might sound excruciatingly dull. But perhaps, says Dr Bainbridge, some of us have had our fill of romantic thrills and spills by the time we reach 50.
Even middle-aged couples who don’t appear to communicate with each other often have an excellent relationship. They are so good at subliminal communication, some therapists believe, that they simply don’t need to talk much.
A ROVING EYE, BUT HE WON’T ABANDON YOU
In biological terms, middle-aged men are still attracted to young women because of their potential to have babies.
That’s why society is less likely to frown on a 50-year-old man marrying a 30-year-old woman than a 50-year-old woman marrying a 30-year-old man.
So, you could say it’s an eminently sensible strategy for a middle-aged man to run off with a young woman: he can father more children — which, after all, is his biological raison d’etre.
While children with older fathers tend to score lower in cognitive tests, there's evidence to suggest older mothers have more intelligent offspring
Fortunately, our genetic inheritance compensates for this urge by slamming on the brakes in the majority of middle-aged male brains.
It’s not that they can’t appreciate the undoubted charms of a smooth-skinned young woman fizzing with hormones, it’s just that they don’t usually act on their primal instinct.
Why Because by then a man has invested a great deal in his middle-aged marriage — and not just in terms of property and possessions.
If he’s already fathered children — the most helpless of all mammals until they reach maturity — he’s programmed to want to stay around and help complete their upbringing.
Even if either husband or wife does have an affair, middle-aged relationships are surprisingly robust. Studies have shown that affairs are seldom the sole cause of divorce; and are often less emotionally satisfying than the marriage itself.
Intriguingly, new research suggests that fertile young women may be wise to steer clear of middle-aged men, because their ageing sperm leaves a lot to be desired.
Midlife fathers can be up to three times more likely than men under 25 to have children who eventually develop schizophrenia. Other diseases, including Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and bipolar disorder, are also now suspected to be partly down to older fathers.
Still not convinced Children with older fathers also tend to score lower in cognitive tests. And death rates between birth and 18 are 80 per cent higher in children fathered by men aged over 45.
The main causes of this increased mortality are congenital abnormalities, and injuries and accidents. Whether the injuries and accidents result from reduced intelligence in the children or reduced paternal watchfulness is unclear.
Intriguingly, there’s evidence that older mothers may produce more intelligent children than younger mums. So older women hoping to give birth to bright and healthy children may be best advised to find themselves toy-boys.
THE MYTH OF THE MIDLIFE CRISIS
There’s one group of people in our politically correct, post-feminist, non-ageist world who may be mercilessly lampooned without fear of reprisal: middle-aged men.
In TV comedies and commercials, they’re portrayed as buffoons in emotional meltdown, while their wives are wise and articulate.
However, the current consensus among psychologists is that the midlife crisis is a myth.
Initially popularised in the 1970s in the U.S., it supposedly encompassed anxiety about growing older, a pathetic desire to seek the romantic attentions of younger women, and a powerful urge to indulge in childish activities.
The author argues that middle aged men buy sporty cars, such as this Porsche 911 GT3, simply because they've always wanted one and can now afford it – not because of a midlife crisis
In fact, only one in ten men goes through intense emotional turmoil in early middle age. And most of these crises have an external cause — such as marriage breakdown or losing a job — rather than any clear link to their age.
Of the men who do believe they have undergone a midlife psychological crisis, more than half say that it occurred before the age of 40 or after the age of 50.
Still, some men do change at 40, dressing head-to-toe in leather and buying phallic-looking cars. So why do they do it Probably because they can now afford the things that they have always wanted.
‘Whatever some people might think,’ says Dr Bainbridge, ‘the world is noticeably not full of priapic middle-aged men chasing twenty-something sirens.’
AN EMPTY NEST AT LAST YIPPEE!
Contrary to what people think, we’re actually less likely to suffer from depression in middle age than at any other time in our lives.
Anxiety disorders also decline at this stage, and schizophrenia is less likely to start then than during the teenage or young adult years.
Nor do we tend to feel gloomy about our advancing years.
Middle-aged men and women tend to manage stress better with an ability unmatched by people in any other phase of life
Questionnaire-based studies have found that our sense of well-being is greater during middle age than at any other time in adult life.
Certainly, the middle-aged mind seems to avoid or manage stress with an ability unmatched by people in any other phase of life.
And by 40, most of us have finally learned how to divert our emotions from self-defeating cycles of self-criticism.
Instead, there is evidence that we channel our emotions in a purposeful, focused and effective way. We become an island of stability in the maelstrom of human life.
Even our personal relationships are more stable. As studies have shown, we rate our personal relationships more highly than young people do, and tend to see our close friends more often.
But what about when the kids leave home Aren’t we then likely to suffer from empty-nest gloom
Highly unlikely. Research reveals no clear correlation between children leaving home and depression in middle-aged parents.
In fact, in some cases, the emptying of the nest reinvigorates a marriage and is associated with increased measures of well-being. Some experts even describe empty-nest syndrome as a myth.
YOU’RE EVEN MORE OF A BRAINBOX
Remarkably, middle-aged men and women are at the peak of their intellectual abilities, which don’t begin to decline until after the age of 65.
Indeed, most psychologists now believe that human minds continue to develop long into midlife.
People aged 40 to 60 do better than the young in a wide variety of tests involving verbal skills, spatial perception, mathematics, reasoning and planning.
And there’s clear evidence from MRI scans that these changes are linked to the fact that the brain’s white matter — which is involved in connecting different parts of the brain — actually increases in middle age.
It seems that we even think differently in middle age. While the young tend to prefer using either the right or left hemisphere during any given activity, we’re more inclined to use both.
Scientists are still studying what this means, but Dr Bainbridge suggests that the change in circuits in the mature brain can result in it performing better than it did in the past. In short, he says, the middle-aged human brain is the most powerful, flexible-thinking machine in the known universe.
Middle-aged men and women are at the peak of their intellectual abilities with people aged 40 to 60m performing better on tests than other age groups
But what about our short-term memories, which tend to decline at some point after the age of 50 Not important, he says, because these senior moments are usually temporary.
What matters far more is that our long-term memory — the repository of all our wisdom and experience — usually survives unscathed well beyond middle age.
There’s another big difference between young and midlife brains: the older ones aren’t as quick. But speed, it seems, has very little effect on our ability to think.
In any case, Bainbridge suspects, midlifers compensate for their lack of speed by being especially good at ‘seeing the wood for the trees’.
Experiments show that they can hold larger batches of information in their heads, and can also ‘take a step back’ and view this information ‘globally’ and in context, rather than being confused by details.
For example, evidence from middle-aged typists suggests that they hold longer strings of text in their heads to compensate for the fact that they can’t type as fast as before.
And research on middle-aged engineers reveals that they’re better able to sift through new information to solve problems.
We also tend to hold strong beliefs about various issues. Young people may think we’re just being old and cranky. The truth is we’re simply ensuring the continuing success of the human species.
MIDDLE AGE: A Natural History by David Bainbridge is published this week by Portobello at 14.99. To order a copy for 12.99 (incl p&p), call 0843 382 0000.