Midlife Crisis is an Outdated Term

 

Unlike young adults, who handle most tasks on one side of the brain or the other, Baby-Boomers tend to use both hemispheres. Also, the “mature” brain in Baby-Boomers show less evidence of fear, anger and hatred than young adults.

 

We no longer need to be afraid of Midlife crisis!

We have previously viewed the 40 years plus age group in negative terms. The good news is that recent discoveries are showing that the aging brain grows stronger from use and challenge. It is also more flexible and adaptable than we previously thought.

Gene Cohen, M.D., PH.D conducted studies of 3000 older adults and identified four distinct developmental phases that unfold in overlapping 20-year periods beginning in a person’s early 40s:

 

  • A midlife re-evaluation (typically encountered between 40 and 65) during which we set new goals and priorities
  • A liberation phase (55 to 75) that involves shedding past inhibitions to express ourselves more freely
  • A summing-up phase (65 to 85) when we begin to review our lives and concentrate on giving back
  • An encore phase (75 and beyond) that involves finding affirmation and fellowship in the face of adversity and loss.

 

Dr. Cohen refers to “phases” and not “stages” because people vary widely during later life.

We experience these changes as we get older because we become aware that our life on earth is not infinite. We realize that we’ve entered the second half of our life and the years seem to go by faster. We begin to question our accomplishments and re-evaluate our priorities. This is the time of life we might make radical changes. We have more confidence in our abilities to tackle new tasks and look for areas that take advantage of knowledge and better judgment.

In order to understand how our brain works, Dr. Cohen explains that our brains actually consist of two separate structures—a right brain and a left brain. In most people, the left hemisphere specializes in speech, language and logical reasoning, while the right hemisphere handles more intuitive tasks, such as face recognition and the reading of emotional cues. But as scientists have recently discovered through studies with PET scans and magnetic resonance imaging, this pattern changes as we age. Unlike young adults, who handle most tasks on one side of the brain or the other, older ones tend to use both hemispheres.

An other interesting aspect of the “mature” brain is that older adults show less evidence of fear, anger and hatred than young adults. Psychological studies confirm that impression, showing that older adults are less impulsive and less likely to dwell on their negative feelings.

Although this new research should make us feel happier about facing our golden years, we can’t just sit by waiting. We need to stay engaged both physically and mentally.

Physical Exercise: Ensures adequate blood flow which carries oxygen throughout the body and especially to the brain. Among other benefits, physical exercise produces endorphins also known as “happy hormones”.

 

Mental Exercise: Keeps the brain from becoming sluggish. It is a muscle like any other in your body and requires use to keep its strength from waning.

 

Exercise Needs to be Challenging: Select activities that you enjoy. Mastering new skills exercises the brain and provides a sense of accomplishment. Continued involvement in hobbies you’ve enjoyed throughout your life will keep your mind and body active.

 

Maintain Social Relationships: Staying in touch with long-time friends and making new ones keeps you healthy mentally and physically. An active social life cannot be underestimated.

As more studies are conducted, we will learn more about the aging process of our minds. For now, it’s encouraging to realize that we can remain happy and productive well into our senior years provided we take steps to keep our brains and bodies exercised.

 

Note: Cohen is founding director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University Medical Center. Some aspects of this article are based on information from “The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain,” published by Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Book Group.

 

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