Perhaps no other time of life is as plagued with misinformation as middle age.
"Midlife--the years between 30 and 70, with 40 to 60 at its core--is the least charted territory in human development," psychologist Orville Gilbert Brim, PhD, has written. Noting that most researchers focus on childhood, adolescence or old age, he has long argued that faulty knowledge and unvalidated premises have given people the wrong idea about what really happens in midlife.
Brim should know. As head of the recently completed decade-long research effort carried out by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development, he and his team of researchers are uncovering data that challenge stereotypes about midlife crisis, menopausal distress and the empty-nest syndrome.
And psychologists from that study and others are continuing the effort to provide more information about a stage of life long-ignored by researchers focused on the more dramatic changes that occur earlier and later in life. They're examining the stressors unique to midlife, identifying factors that help predict a healthy middle age and searching for signs of cognitive decline. What they're finding is generally good news.
Psychologist David M. Almeida, PhD, an associate professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona at Tucson, is one of the researchers who has been working with the MacArthur Foundation network.
Almeida studies day-to-day stressors--fights with a spouse, work deadlines and the like--that he says give a more accurate picture of well-being than such rare life events as divorce or a loved one's death that most stress researchers study. His "National Study of Daily Experiences" is an in-depth study of the "National Survey of Midlife in the United States" carried out by the MacArthur group.
While younger adults experience these day-to-day stressors more frequently, Almeida has found, midlife adults experience more "overload" stressors--basically juggling too many activities at one time. There are gender differences, however. Midlife women shoulder more "crossover" stressors--simultaneous demands from multiple domains like work and family--than their male counterparts and report higher levels of distress as a result. Almeida's findings will appear in "How Healthy Are We?: A National Study of Well-being at Midlife" (Chicago), a forthcoming volume co-edited by Brim that will summarize the MacArthur network's findings.
Socioeconomic status also makes a difference, Almeida has found. In a study slated to appear in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, he found that while midlife people with lower educational status report the same number of stressors as those with higher educational status, they are more likely to rate stressors as more severe.
Day-to-day stress doesn't add up to a midlife crisis, however. In fact, says Almeida, these stressors may even have a positive effect.
"The reason why midlife people have these stressors is that they actually have more control over their lives than earlier and later in life," he explains. "When people describe these stressors, they often talk in terms of meeting the challenge."
Of course, not everyone meets the challenges of midlife with equanimity. For example, there are factors that can put certain men at risk of the kind of distress that used to be thought an almost inevitable part of male midlife.
"If you look at the research, evidence for a midlife crisis is just not there," says Margaret H. Huyck, PhD, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Psychology in Chicago. "Some men are vulnerable, but not all of them. You have to understand the specific conditions that make particular men vulnerable."
That's just what Huyck has done. Drawing on data from a study of 150 families in a community whose confidentiality she protects by calling it "Parkville," she has looked at factors that put men at risk of stress and depression at midlife.
What Huyck has found is that men's vulnerability is related to what she calls "gender expansion," which occurs as men become more nurturing and women more assertive at midlife. In research published in the "Handbook of Counseling and Psychotherapy with Older Adults" (Wiley, 1999), she found that it is men who perceived their mothers as strong and domineering and their fathers as weak and ineffectual who suffer when they and their wives undergo this shift. They make what Huyck calls "unconscious and fanciful" projections that they will end up like their fathers and their wives like their mothers. The result is psychological distress.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, focuses on how job and relationship choices made earlier in life affect baby boomers' psychological well-being at midlife. Her work draws on data from a study called "Psychosocial Development in Adulthood: A 34-Year Sequential Study," which has tracked three generations of college students.
In as-yet-unpublished research presented at APA's Annual Convention last August, Whitbourne found that people who had switched jobs early in adulthood scored higher in a category she calls generativity--a sense of productivity in work and a desire to leave something of yourself behind for future generations--than those who settled down and stuck with an occupation for 20 years or more. In contrast, she found, divorce and other changes in personal relationships in early life had a detrimental effect on midlife mental health.
"Job changes in people's 20s and 30s tended to be beneficial in midlife," says Whitbourne, adding that even job changes made in midlife seemed to have a beneficial effect. "The assumption is these people didn't feel stuck."
Other researchers focus on intellectual ability at midlife. Psychologist Sherry L. Willis, PhD, professor of human development at the Pennsylvania State University, first got interested in the topic when she noticed that the middle-aged women in the long-term study her husband directs were defying conventional wisdom by not "losing their minds" at menopause. The Seattle Longitudinal Study has been assessing members of a health maintenance organization every seven years since 1956.
Now co-principal investigator of the study with husband K. Warner Schaie, PhD, Willis has been taking a closer look at intellectual abilities at midlife. "You can look at what we know about baby boomers' cognitive functioning from a 'cup half full' or a 'cup half empty' approach," she says.
The good news is that people at midlife score higher on almost every measure of cognitive functioning than they did when they were 25, Willis found in a study published in a book she co-edited called "Life in the Middle" (Academic Press, 1999). Verbal ability, numerical ability, reasoning and verbal memory all improve by midlife, she found. The only ability that declines between 25 and midlife is perceptual speed--the ability to quickly and accurately perform such tasks as deciding whether two ZIP codes are identical.
The bad news is that there may be a hint of decline in cognitive functioning by the second half of middle age, from the mid-50s to early 60s. Although these very minor declines weren't statistically significant, Willis believes the finding conforms to people's own sense about their abilities. Even with the declines, however, people's abilities are still well above what they were in young adulthood.
For Willis, baby boomers' anxiety about so-called "senior moments" is misguided since verbal memory doesn't decline any more than numeric or reasoning ability. When it comes to verbal memory, she says, the research just doesn't show the dramatic decline that stereotypes of middle age suggest happen.
"Much of the research has focused on old age because that's where you see these dramatic changes," says Willis. "Some researchers say middle age is really dull because nothing happens." For Willis and other researchers, that's good news.
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.