The Myth of the Mid Life Crisis; It's Time We Stopped Dismissing Middle Age as the Beginning of the End. Research Suggests That at 40, the Brain's Best Years Are Still Ahead

By Cohen, Gene | Newsweek, January 16, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Myth of the Mid Life Crisis; It's Time We Stopped Dismissing Middle Age as the Beginning of the End. Research Suggests That at 40, the Brain's Best Years Are Still Ahead


Cohen, Gene, Newsweek


Byline: Gene Cohen, M.D., PH.D. (Cohen is founding director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University Medical Center. This article is adapted from "The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain," published this month by Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Book Group.)

I was taken by surprise several years ago when my colleagues started to worry that I was going through some sort of midlife crisis. I was in my late 40s, and after two decades as a gerontologist I was pursuing a new passion: designing games for older adults. My first game, a joint effort with artist Gretchen Raber, was a finalist in an internationally juried show on games as works of art. Though I still had a day job directing George Washington University's Center on Aging, Health & Humanities, I was now working hard on a second game.

"Are you turning right on us?" one friend, a neuroscientist, kidded me. He wasn't talking about politics. He was asking whether I'd scrapped the logical, analytical tendencies of the brain's left hemisphere to embrace the more creative, less disciplined tendencies of the right brain. But I wasn't scrapping anything. As a researcher, I had spent years documenting the psychological benefits of intergenerational play. Now I was using both sides of my brain to create new opportunities for myself. Instead of just measuring and studying the benefits of mental stimulation, I was finding creative ways to put my findings to work. What my friends perceived as a crisis was, in truth, the start of a thrilling new phase of my life.

In thinking about this experience, I realized that our view ofhuman development in the second half of life was badly outmoded. We tend to think of aging in purely negative terms, and even experts often define "successful" aging as the effective management of decay and decline. Rubbish. No one can deny that aging brings

challenges and losses. But recent discoveries in neuroscience show that the aging brain is more flexible and adaptable than we previously thought. Studies suggest that the brain's left and right hemispheres become better integrated during middle age, making way for greater creativity. Age also seems to dampen some negative emotions. And a great deal of scientific work has confirmed the "use it or lose it" adage, showing that the aging brain grows stronger from use and challenge. In short, midlife is a time of new possibility. Growing old can be filled with positive experiences. The challenge is to recognize our potential--and nurture it.

Until recently, scientists paid little attention to psychological development in the second half of life, and those who did pay attention often drew the wrong conclusions. "About the age of 50," Sigmund Freud wrote in 1907, "the elasticity of the mental processes on which treatment depends is, as a rule, lacking. Old people are no longer educable." Freud--who wrote those words at 51 and produced some of his best work after 65--wasn't the only pioneer to misconstrue the aging process. Jean Piaget, the great developmental psychologist, assumed that cognitive development stopped during young adulthood, with the acquisition of abstract thought. Even Erik Erikson, who delineated eight stages of psychosocial development, devoted only two pages of his classic work "Identity and the Life Cycle" to later life.

My own work picks up where these past giants left off. Through studies involving more than 3,000 older adults, I have 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, and an encore phase (75 and beyond) that involves finding affirmation and fellowship in the face of adversity and loss. …

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