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Midlife

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Midlife is the central period of a person's life, spanning from approximately age 40 to age 65. It can be a stressful time, as many people come to feel discontented and restless as they struggle with aging, mortality, and holding onto a sense of purpose.

During this period, adults may take on new job responsibilities and therefore feel a need to reassess their professional standing and make changes while they feel they still have time. Psychologist Elliott Jaques coined the term "midlife crisis" in an International Journal of Psycho-Analysis paper on the creative work of composers and artists; he found a decline in productivity at midlife. This is a period of time when adults reckon with their mortality and their sense of a dwindling number of remaining years of productive life. While most people do not experience a severe crisis during middle age, some individuals do develop conditions such as depression and anxiety. Women experiencing menopause may be particularly vulnerable to distress. The midlife crisis is not a diagnosis.

Symptoms

Small, nagging doubts may appear, encouraging a series of dramatic, seemingly irrational events and ultimately great change. A person experiencing challenges with midlife will ask: Is this all there is? Am I a failure? People in midlife also look for meaning and purpose and are disappointed that life seems small.

Signs of a midlife crisis can range from mild to severe, including:

  • Exhaustion, boredom, or discontentment with life or with a lifestyle (including other people and things) that previously provided fulfillment.
  • Frantic energy; feeling restless and wanting to do something completely different.
  • Self-questioning; questioning decisions made years earlier and the meaning of life.
  • ​Confusion about who you are or where your life is going.
  • Excessive daydreaming.
  • Irritability, unexpected anger.
  • Persistent sadness.
  • Increase in alcohol and drug use, food intake, and other compulsions.
  • Significant decrease or increase in sexual desire.
  • Sexual affairs, often with someone much younger.
  • Greatly decreased or increased ambition.

Is it true that people over age 50 are happier than younger people?

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that people over age 50 are generally happier when compared with younger people. They are less anxious and depressed and have less stress. That does not mean there is no depression or mental illness in this age bracket whatsoever. Women in midlife do have high rates of depression, and some men in midlife do suffer suicidal ideation.

Why is divorce common in midlife?

The disgruntled feelings about this stage of life can have cascading repercussions. One partner may find that life is meaningless, and exchanging a partner for a younger one makes sense. In addition, children leave home, and there is a feeling of emptiness between the partners. Couples are also influenced by their friends who are splitting up, and therefore they follow suit.

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Causes

These feelings at midlife can occur naturally or result from some significant loss or change, such as divorce, caring for an elderly parent, the death of a parent, or an empty nest. Coming to terms with such loss or change can be difficult enough, but when complicated by midlife transitions, the process can feel bewildering or overwhelming. In addition, people in this age bracket contend with illness and disease; bodies do change and complaints of aches and pains are real.

Treatment

Coping with the challenges that come in midlife takes time and energy. The following guidance may help individuals achieve a healthy lifestyle in middle age.

Explore, accept, and share your feelings; allow yourself to reflect on your life regularly; devote extra time to your partner; set new goals and develop new hobbies; travel; volunteer; devote time to your children; pay closer attention to your mental health, and, if necessary, consider joining a group or seeking out a therapist.

Exercise can help people maintain their health and the level of fitness necessary for an active, independent life. Physical decline is not necessarily an inevitable consequence of reaching midlife. Much of the physical frailty attributed to aging is actually the result of inactivity, disease, or poor nutrition, and many difficulties can be eased or even reversed with improved lifestyle behaviors. One major benefit of regular physical activity is protection against coronary heart disease. Physical activity also provides protection against chronic illnesses such as adult-onset diabetes, arthritis, hypertension, certain cancers, osteoporosis, and depression. Research has also proven that exercise can reduce tension and stress and help people maintain an active sex life.

A balanced, nutritious diet is also essential to good health, especially in older adults. Consuming a variety of foods helps ensure adequate levels of vitamins and minerals. U.S. Dietary Guidelines also recommend that adults reduce their intake of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar as they age. Some adults tend to put on weight in midlife. This is generally due to hormonal changes, but also to overeating and inactivity. The best way to lose body fat is to eat fewer calories, especially from saturated fats, and to participate in aerobic exercises, even just a 20- to 30-minute brisk daily walk

Why is balance and agility important in midlife?

Balance and agility are often taken for granted. Regular exercise can help maintain or restore them. A well-maintained sense of balance can also help make up for the dizziness sometimes caused by vision changes in midlife and beyond. In addition, toned muscles can help one to avoid the weakness and unsteadiness that may lead to falling, a major contributor to ill health in later years.

Does sleep change in midlife?

Sleep and rest are vital rejuvenators in midlife, when individuals' sleep patterns may change. The napping elderly grandmother is not entirely a stereotype. Yet, daytime naps do hinder proper nighttime sleep. Again, exercise can help. So can a balanced diet and limiting alcohol and caffeine. Physical activity and a proper diet can even relieve problems with insomnia as well.

References
"Death and the Mid-life Crisis"
Handbook of Midlife Development
National Institute of Mental Health
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
"Stress, coping, and health at midlife: A developmental perspective  
Whitbourne, S. K., & Willis, S. L. (2014). The baby boomers grow up: Contemporary perspectives on midlife. Psychology Press
Last updated: 08/12/2021