By Abigail Levin, UIUC
Our aging process is one we are roughly familiar with. Throughout infancy and childhood, you undergo rapid physical and psychological changes, and many of these developments are explicitly visible. Your parents eagerly wait for the day you take your first steps; your pediatrician tracks your height and weight at each annual check-up, as you discover how your growth compares to your age cohort. Even into adolescence and young adulthood, we are made aware of the expected and positive developmental changes. From puberty to the discovery of one’s identity, we are encouraged to accept these developmental milestones.
But what about the plateau experienced in middle-aged adulthood? Those years of your 50’s and 60’s, where you are no longer experiencing nearly as many developmental changes, yet are still transitioning in significant, although often less noticeable ways. Interestingly, modern research tends to skim over these years, while a plethora of research targets one’s infancy, childhood- adolescence, and elderly years, middle-aged adulthood is dissected far less. Moreover, scientific studies that do highlight the transition into one’s 50’s and 60’s focus on the negativity of these years. While many positive, enriching, and often psychologically based changes take place during this period of adulthood, our society is inundated by scientific research that stresses the negativity and frailty.
To begin, in today’s medical world, constant doctor visits, preventative drugs, vitamin supplements, and early or over-diagnosis of disease are prevalent ‘remedies’ of old age. As H. Gilbert Welch, author of The New York Times article “If You Feel O.K., Maybe You Are O.K.” comments, “[e]arly diagnosis has become one of the most fundamental precepts of modern medicine…But is looking hard for things to be wrong a good way to promote health?” (Welch, 2012). This is not to argue against the benefits of early detection and preventive screening, as regular medical screening can help prevent some of the most fatal diseases, such as breast and colon cancer. The issue is rather the augmentation of a society living in constant fear of illness. Likewise, it appears that the target age group of this anxiety-induced, health-conscious mindset is adults in their 50’s and 60’s. Welch continues to argue that this perspective “promotes disease...[as] People suffer from more anxiety about their health, from drug side effects, from complications of surgery” (Welch, 2012) than from any actual illness. In other words, today’s middle-aged adults leave the doctor’s office with more health concerns, increased diet restrictions, and dreary expectations for the remaining aging process, than previous generations.
Similarly, the often pessimistic, scrutinizing lens of our healthcare system encourages middle-aged adults to focus on the drawbacks of senescence, rather than to accentuate the many positive changes and overall stability of one’s 50’s and 60’s (Welch, 2012). Emphasizing their increased susceptibility to illness and frailty as they age, in turn, has a dramatic impact on their mental health. In a research article addressing “[s]elf-rated health, chronic diseases, and symptoms among middle-aged and elderly men and women”, authors Anu Molarius and Staffan Janson identify “[d]epression, neurological disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and tiredness/weakness [as] the largest contributions to poor self-rated health in individuals” and tiredness/weakness as being the highest “prevalence in the population” when assessing the biggest contributors of poor self-rated health (Molarius and Janson, 2002).
So what are the greater implications of this? Some of the aging process’ most inevitable and tolerable symptoms, such as “tiredness/weakness” and various forms of arthritis, are now taking on greater severity as reflected by self-rated health reports. Molarius and Janson demonstrate that because “self-rated health is an indicator of well-being, [and] quality of life”, middle-aged adults are largely preoccupied by these unavoidable health issues and are thus experiencing a decreased quality of life.
As a result, middle-aged adults’ mental state continues to suffer. In her article “Psychological Well-Being in Adult Life”, author Carol D. Ryff argues that, “we must define mental health as the presence of the positive” as our society’s “knowledge of psychological well-being persistently lags behind knowledge of psychological dysfunction” (Ryff, 1995). She continues to discuss how some of our “basic life tendencies that work toward the fulfillment of life” are found during “personality change in adulthood and old age” (Ryff, 1995). This personality change involves solidification of “self-determination”, “good relationships with other people”, and ensuring that one’s “life is purposeful” (Ryff, 1995). These psychological transformations often resonate in middle-aged adulthood through profound, self-motivated choices such as a change in careers, or less overtly, but nonetheless influential, when one’s familial roles shift as a result of new family dynamics (i.e. “empty- nester” phase as children move away from home to college).
Unfortunately, the on-going overlap between one’s physical and mental state often hinders the psychological benefits of middle-aged adulthood as adults in their 50’s and 60’s are more focused on avoiding ‘old age’ rather than enjoying the stability and happiness of this age. As previously discussed research shows, adults in their 50’s and 60’s are now more preoccupied by their declining physical health, and therefore less able to enjoy some of the most important psychological facets of middle-aged adulthood. In other words, it is healthy and reassuring to view middle-aged adulthood as a developmental plateau, rather than as a steady decline into one’s elderly years. Many will argue that this perspective is unrealistic, as physical deteriorations during an individual’s 50’s and 60’s lead to automatic increased anxiety about one’s health. But, while occasional preoccupation is healthy and normal, constant monitoring of one’s physical state for any possible ailments takes a toll on one’s physical and mental well-being.
In describing how to achieve a well-balanced psychological state into adult life, Ryff writes that of most importance is the ability to not only possess “a positive attitude toward the self...but also [to accept] one’s good and bad qualities…[which] includes positive evaluations of one’s self and one’s life, [and] a sense of continued growth” (Ryff, 1995). In this way, embracing senescence, including both its positive and negative changes, represents achieving this “sense of continued growth” as one ages. While modern medicine, innovative healthcare specialists, fitness technology, and other aging remedies prove to be beneficial in alleviating some setbacks of senescence, we cannot be consumed by the impossible task of stopping the natural course of our aging bodies. Instead, simply disconnecting ourselves from society’s focus on the process of ‘growing old’ may be the best medicine of all. Welch stated it best in her article’s title, “If You Feel O.K., Maybe You Are O.K.” Accepting the natural aging process and the positive changes of middle-aged adulthood will lead to improved mental and physical vitality for the many years to come.
Janson, S. & Molarius, A. (2002). Self-rated health, chronic diseases, and symptoms among middle-aged and elderly men and women. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 55. Retrieved from
Ryff, C.D. (1995). Psychological well-being in adult life. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 4. Retrieved from
Welch, H.G. (2012, Feb. 27). If you feel o.k., maybe you are o.k. The New York Times.