In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age - An interview with Patricia Cohen

The comments below are from an interviews with Patricia Cohen, a journalist at the New York Times and author of In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age by Patricia Cohen, and provided for your consideration.

QUESTION: What do you mean when you say middle age was “invented”?

ANSWER: Of course there have always been people in their 40s, 50s and 60s, but it was only in the second half of the 19th century that people began to think of this period as a separate stage of development. Whether age 13 signals the coming of manhood as in the Jewish religion, whether 18 or 21 is an appropriate age to vote and drink, whether a minimum of 40 years is necessary to be president, whether 65 is the time to retire from work are choices made by a particular group at a particular moment for particular reasons.

The idea of middle age -- as a discrete category of development with unique characteristics and needs, or as a subject that merited reflection and analysis – was not something that existed in the early 1800s. There were no medicines, organizations, leisure activities, treatments or empowerment gurus designated specifically for people in middle age. You were young, you were an adult, and then you were old.

QUESTION: When does middle age begin?

ANSWER: That’s the first question that everyone asks. Forty has long been the traditional turning point in adulthood in the West. The New American dictionary defines middle age as “the period between youth and adulthood, generally 40 to 60,” while the U.S. Census Bureau define middle age as 45 to 64. Extensive surveys reveal that the definition frequently depends on a respondent’s age, sex, class and ethnicity. Those with more schooling tend to mark its onset later, as do those who are older; men think it begins earlier than women. Men between 25 and 34 say middle age commences at 40 and ends at 56, for example, while women between 65 and 74 say it starts at 48 and lasts until 62. As life expectancy has increased (by more than three decades in the 20th century), people have stretched the ribbon of middle age like a rubber band, extending it into their seventies. In 2009, a survey asked people between 50 and 64 when midlife ended. Most chose age 71.

Middle age is like a Never Never Land -- a place that you never want to enter and never want to leave.

QUESTION: You write about this enormous long-term study of middle age that the federal government is financing. What is that?

ANSWER: It is called Midlife in the United States and it is like the Manhattan Project of middle age, looking into every aspect of midlife that you could possibly think of.

QUESTION: What have they found so far?

ANSWER: The research has punctured some of the most stubborn myths about midlife in America. Theories about a midlife crisis and empty nest syndrome were blown away, as were the imagined ranks of sweaty women raging against menopause and middle-aged husbands abandoning decades-long marriages for dewy young trophy wives. Midlife was “a watershed period” when people began to shift from taking care of family to becoming more active in community and public affairs. Stress reached a highpoint as worries about children, money, aging parents and other responsibilities pile up. But as burdens grew so did confidence in one’s own capabilities. People reported feeling more in charge of work, marriage and finances as they entered the middle decades. That sense of control -- that you can personally take steps to influence what happens in your life -- is both a crucial source of happiness and a catalyst for taking action to stay healthier.

QUESTION: So many people find they are happier in middle age?

ANSWER: Yes, though people are often surprised to hear this, midlife is often the happiest period of their lives.

QUESTION: Is there such a thing as male menopause?

ANSWER: Scientists have found no evidence of male menopause. Most of the people who say there is want to sell you some treatment for it.

QUESTION: There are also a lot of claims about how great human growth hormone, HGH, is. Are they true?

ANSWER: So far, scientists say that risks far outweigh benefits when it is used as an anti-aging treatment in healthy older adults. Side effects include diabetes, high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, abnormal growth of bones or internal organs and carpal tunnel syndrome. No direct link to cancer has been established, but some scientists think there is evidence of a troubling connection. They hypothesize that the body cranks down the production of growth hormone in adults in order to curb the development of cancer cells; dosing on growth hormone may cancel out that protection.

QUESTION: So what can you do to stay healthy and sharp?

ANSWER: Physical exercise is the most important thing you can do. Brain games also help to keep your mind sharp. Perhaps most surprising is that having confidence that you have control over your life actually improves your health. People who believe they are able to protect their mental health end up doing exactly that. The belief operates in a self-reinforcing loop: you do more to keep your brain healthy (like diet, exercise and playing word games) because you think it will make a difference; and it makes a difference because you do more.

You can read more Ms. Cohen's site and, if interested, purchase her book at This interview is published by my decision. I receive absolutely no financial consideration in return, as is always the case at

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