What Takes Place in Middle Age?
Physical Development in Middle Adulthood
Middle Adulthood - the 40s and the 50s - is the period of development when the body starts to show the different signs of aging, such as:
- Sagging Skin - due to the loss of fat and collagen in the underlying tissues of the skin;
- Age Spots - small, localized areas of pigmentation on exposed body skin, such as the hands and the feet;
- Thinning and Graying Hair - due to lower hair replacement rate and decline in melanin production;
- Height Loss - loss of 1/2 inch per decade, starting in the 40s;
- Weight Gain - wherein fat comprise 20% of the body's weight, compared to 10% in adolescence;
- Menopause (for women) - common at the age 52, 10% of women get menopause before the age of 40. Menopause is due to decline of estrogen production, leading to symptomatic reactions, such as hot flashes, nausea, fatigue and rapid heartbeat.
These signs of aging are the reasons why middle-age adults tend to engage in weight reduction programs, to undergo cosmetic surgery, and to dye their hair. Middle-age adults also have an increased risk for heart disease and certain types of cancer, particularly lung cancer, which usually surfaces at this age. According to the American Geriatrics Society, estrogen replacement therapy, which is recommended for menopausal women to reduce unwanted symptoms of declining estrogen production, also reduces women's risks for osteoporosis and coronary diseases; however, it also increases the risk for breast cancer. Male hormonal decline, on the other hand, is not as serious as with women.
Cognitive Development in Middle Adulthood
It is previously thought that middle-age adults not only show decline in physical health, but also in mental health. However, John Horn (1980), in a cross-cultural study, found an increase in crystallized intelligence (accumulated information and verbal skills) and decrease in fluid intelligence (abstract reasoning skills) among middle-age adults. K. Warner Schaeie (1983, 1986), on the other hand, improved upon Horn's study and found that in a longitudinal study of 500 individuals in 1956, only numerical ability and perceptual speed decreased in middle adulthood; while vocabulary, verbal memory, spatial orientation and even inductive reasoning (contrary to Horn's finding) increased. Additionally, it was soon found out that middle-age adults apparently decline in their information-processing speed, presumably because their reaction time slows down (Salthouse, 1984). Therefore, it is safer to say that middle-age adults improve upon their crystallized intelligence and some aspects of fluid intelligence.
Socioemotional Development in Middle Adulthood
Daniel Levinson interviewed men of various occupations - health workers, academic biologists, business executives and novelists - and subsequently women, in a transition of 5 years, to track their socioemotional development. In his book, "The Season of a Man's Life" (1978), he introduced the concept of midlife crisis - a chance in middle adulthood when adults come to grips and start to face social conflicts that have arisen since adolescence. Levinson claims that in middle adulthood, adults begin to realize the finiteness of time and the urgency to finally resolve the issues of being young versus being old, being constructive versus destructive, being masculine versus feminine, and choosing attachment versus isolation. Although Levinson's study and his book were compelling, contemporary psychologists believe otherwise. Brint (1999), for instance, studied 3,032 25-74 year-old Americans, and found that only 10% experience midlife crisis. He also found that 40-65 year-old adults report lower anxiety levels than the other age ranges. Citing Brint's study, Santrock (2002) transformed the concept of midlife crisis to midlife consciousness, stressing that middle-age adults become conscious of the above-mentioned social issues, but are not necessarily in crisis, as they show resiliency and good coping skills despite increasing report of negative life-events, like the death of parents or older relatives and friends.
Positive Psychology in Middle Age
American psychiatrist Victor Frankl emphasized the uniqueness and finiteness of life in his book, "Man's Search for Meaning" (1984). He was inspired by the death of his parents, brother and wife at Auschwitz, Germany, and his unforgettable experience at the Nazi's gas chambers and concentration camps. Santrock (2005) recommends that middle-age adults, in realizing the urgency of life, should strengthen and incorporate life themes in their activities (like Alice Walker's overcoming of pain and anger), as a way to cope with deaths and other negative life events.