The ubiquitous term “midlife crisis” that many in society take for granted, doesn’t exist, according to many developmental psychology researchers, and in fact, most people during middle adulthood are satisfied and pleased with their lives. Developmentalists categorize this life stage as people between ages 35 to 64, and they maintain that healthy and unhealthy lifestyles and attitudes are the main concerns for those in this age group.
For those in middle adulthood, aging is inevitable. By age 64, visible signs are apparent, such as gray and thinning hair, wrinkles, the need for reading and bifocal eyeglasses, and some hearing loss. Internally, changes are taking place as well, with some decline in the major organs, including the lungs, heart and digestive system; additionally women undergo menopause sometime between the ages of 42 and 51. Developmentalists call these forms of aging primary, meaning that the changes are inevitable and happen to everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, culture or socioeconomic class.
Secondary aging, however, is the result of unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, drug use, unhealthy eating, alcohol abuse, obesity and lack of exercise. Death rates for this age group remain relatively low, although the two major illnesses that do affect the health and mortality of this age group are heart disease and cancer: analysis from a 2006 report by the nonprofit group Life Insurance Foundation for Education finds that the leading causes of death for males ages 45-65 is heart disease, followed by cancer. For females ages 35-64, the leading cause of death is cancer.
Researchers have proven, however, that exercise alone reduces the risk of almost every serious illness in middle adulthood – especially heart disease and cancer. Add healthy eating and the elimination of tobacco and alcohol use to middle-age lifestyles, and major illnesses can literally be halted altogether. And exercise slows many primary aging changes too, such as the physiological changes taking place within the vital organs.
Developmentalists also study individuals’ vitality, or “joy of living” during the middle adult years as they have found high correlations between positive, upbeat attitudes and physical and mental health. These researchers have found that negativity caused by stress or conditions such as depression or anxiety can even eventually lead to chronic physical conditions in otherwise healthy bodies.
Until the middle of the 20th century, it was thought that intelligence peaked in adolescence and then began to decline, and continued its descent over the remainder of a person’s life. However, psychological researchers, particularly the work of K. Warner Schaie and his 1956 study called the Seattle Longitudinal Study, have proven that hypothesis incorrect, proving that some aspects of intelligence, such as vocabulary skills, actually increase until about age 60. Schaie’s research project studied the aging and cognition of individuals from birth through the entire life span.
Two researchers during the 1960s, Raymond Cattell and John Horn, identified two categories of intelligence – crystallized and fluid intelligence. These researchers argued that fluid intelligence, or the ability to process new concepts and facts quickly and creatively, including abstract reasoning problems, independent of previous education or learning, peaks in adolescence and then starts a gradual decline between the ages of 30 and 40.
On the other hand, crystallized intelligence, or the stored knowledge gained from experience and education, becomes higher as people age. Facts like mathematical or chemical formulas, vocabulary size and history dates are all examples of crystallized intelligence.
And researcher James Flynn has shown that each new generation of IQ test takers scores higher than previous generations. Researchers point to better education, nutrition and health as contributing factors.
Although younger generations score higher on IQ tests than older generations, that doesn’t mean that the intellectual abilities of adults diminish. To the contrary, middle adulthood is a time when many people have acquired a particular vocational expertise that makes them uniquely more qualified and capable than younger adults. This means that many in midlife are at the height of their careers, which also means increased job responsibilities. Career pressures combined with other changes taking place in their lives requires the ability to adequately juggle personal and professional responsibilities.
Those in this age group typically need to simultaneously manage a variety of family issues including children at various ages of development, aging, ill parents and financial concerns and worries. But by middle age, many individuals are better at handling the stresses of life. Through experience, flexible thinking, higher levels of intuition and adaptability, and the support of friendships that have been nurtured over the years, this age group typically conquers these challenges artfully and with expertise. And by adequately managing major life stressors, many individuals gain a sense of empowerment and confidence.
However, those who do struggle with middle-age stressors generally find that such stressors can negatively impact their overall health – especially as they get older and enter older adulthood. Alcoholism and overeating are examples of negative approaches to problem-solving, that are particularly relevant to this age group. In fact, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the obesity prevalence for men and women aged 50-59 years increased to 31.7% and 30.2%, respectively from 19.1% for men and women aged 18-29 years. The CDC also reports that 30% of current consumers of alcohol drink excessively.
Just about everyone has heard of the “midlife” crisis. Supposedly this is a time of great emotional upheaval, anxiety, and drastic changes in behavior. But professionals specializing in developmental psychology characterize this time period quite differently, and research supporting the evidence of midlife crisis simply doesn’t exist.
Most middle-aged individuals say that they are in meaningful intimate relationships, including those who have been married for several years. For those who divorce and remarry, many report satisfying intimacy although most report that remarriage brings a new set of challenges.
And developmentalists have found that most people in this age group have less problems with their children and also better relationships with their own parents.
What many consider a “crisis” might stem from a personality trait that makes coping with life’s stresses difficult. Developmentalists study how personality affects people’s lives, and try and identify the traits that lead to healthy or unhealthy behaviors and attitudes.
If studying personality and how it affects behavior sounds intriguing, or if you find how people grow and change in their middle adulthood years fascinating, you should consider a career in developmental psychology. Academic careers that also include research usually require either a master’s degree or PhD in psychology.
Also, learn more about the psychology career licensing processes and what the requirements for licensure are: Psychology Career Licensure.