Middle-aged, the whiz-bang stuff
Adolescence and middle-age are so often viewed negatively. As the two constitute half of our lives, it means, half our life is spent in problematic, negative, transition. People may not like ‘oldies’ for their verbal diarrhoea as also the propensity to ‘advise’. As they want to make their opinions known, this desire of ‘wrinklies’, conveying experience can become something of a compulsion and an irritating one at that. In middle-age there still seems enough time to convey measured and balanced perspectives to younger generations but in ‘oldies’/”wrinklies’ the process can become a desperate, frustrating struggle to heap information onto a younger generation which no longer seems to be listening. So much to say: so little time.
Imagine the super-efficient hunting, gathering, and cultural dissemination which our ancient fore-bearers used to do. Compare it with the domination of the modern economic and political world by the middle-aged people. The eras may be different but the superiority remains the same and it’s mainly due to the middle-aged brain. At 45 hunter-gatherers are at the peak of hunter-gathering (at this age most of the chimpanzees are dead). The muscle shrivels and bone thins; they might have lost strength, bone mass and agility but their years of practice and experience means that the older members of humans still outshine their younger peers.
The world is full of middle-aged people teaching and training young adults even though young adults are often brighter and quicker than they are. This gives middle-aged individuals a tremendous inherent value. For 99.5% of Homo’s tenure on this planet we simply didn’t live the settled, farming life. And the evidence suggests that for much of that, 99.5% middle-aged people were a large component of human societies. Crucially this means that natural selection had many millennia to hone middle-aged humans into the wonderful end-products we see today. Natural selection promotes maintenance and repair of the body only in so far as it promotes successful breeding, and surprisingly at 20 years age, perhaps, maintenance of the body starts to slip down our list of priorities. Even worse your body is allowed to deteriorate somewhat in advance of actually becoming redundant.
Middle-aged brain truly is a triumph. Although the sensory information entering it is becoming ragged, and its internal processes don’t work at quite the speed they once did this…..misplace glasses, cell phone/car-keys or lose touch with tablets, mobiles TVs and other gizmos. Quite simply the middle-aged brain is at the height of its cognitive powers, and whether you subscribe to the ‘summit-euphoria’, ‘trouble-ahead’, or ‘deceptive-plateau’ view of the feat probably depends on whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. One thing is clear though; the genetic-developmental ‘clock of life’ still ticks inside the middle-aged brain, and it drives a radical restructuring of thought processes, encouraging brain to develop new ways of working well into our 5th and 6th decades. It makes sense for middle-age to be human most productive time, as well as a time when we’re best able to convey our culture to others.
Someone who’s forty-sixty something today is middle-aged. Two hundred years ago, a sixty-something would be a very old person. People no longer see "middle-age" as a numerical milestone and don’t tend to think of them as "old" as they hit their 50s and beyond. Living a healthy and varied lifestyle helps people to keep feeling young and people embrace getting older. Brain is all too aware of the changes going on in the body. It reacts and responds to its subjective perception of the body which it inhabits-it’s self aware. Middle-age is becoming a term with less and less significance. People no longer see ‘middle-age’ as a numerical milestone and don’t tend to think of them as ‘old’ as they hit their fifties and beyond. A fifty-something, with the mind-set of a thirty-something— perhaps sometimes even that of a teenager!