Inbox: Beer bellies & bingo wings

Finally, some good news on becoming middle aged. There’s purpose behind all that flab and sag, if we’re to believe the comforting ideas of Cambridge University’s Dr David Bainbridge.
In his latest book Middle Age: natural history Dr Bainbridge says that far from being on the slippery slope to life’s final exit door, nature has designed middle age as distinct and purposeful time of life for humans. We’re at the “pinnacle of evolution”, designed in our 40s and 50s to pass on our accumulated skills and knowledge, and play vital role in society.
Freed from the pressures of child-bearing and relatively unencumbered by the aches and pains of old age, middle age is “a time of perfect balance between cognition and emotion”, says Bainbridge.
We may lose at tennis to our kids now but we “compensate by using our brains differently to improve skills like long-term planning and managing projects”.
Bainbridge is both reproductive biologist and veterinary surgeon, comes fully equipped with zoology degree, and concludes in his book that middle age is distinct stage of life rather than gradual grey descent into saggy bottomness. It’s “controlled and preprogrammed process not of decline but of development”.
He also argues that changes happen abruptly – “certainly too fast to be part of some gradual, cumulative, senescent degeneration” – and that, biologically speaking, being middle aged is unique to humans. Presumably, there are no middle aged dogs running around?
Bainbridge “provisionally” defines middle aged people as those in their 40s and 50s and acknowledges this is an arbitrary definition.
“If you ask doctor to define middle age they will probably talk about the menopause,” he writes. “If you ask sociologist, he may mention empty nests and tolerating teenagers. If you ask an economist, she will explain career-peaking, maternal return to work, and provision for old age. If you ask friend, he might tell you it was the moment he looked into the mirror and realised he was turning into replica of his parents. But do any of these things really define middle age any more?”
Pulling together strands from anthropology, neuroscience, psychology and reproductive biology, Bainbridge says that, for him, the essence of middle age is “best defined by the questions that might cross the mind of middle-aged human in the middle of the night”.
“Am I becoming biologically worthless? Am I getting ill more? Am I ageing at the same rate as other people? What did I develop that complex personality for, exactly? Have I improved my circumstances since I was child? Should I save for my children’s inheritance or my own old age? Have I left it too late to have children?
“Am I unhappier than I used to be? Why are the social rules no longer my rules? Should I want to buy motorbike and run off with model? What do I do now the kids have left/are leaving/won’t leave? Who is this person lying peacefully asleep next to me and why do we two not love as we used to?”
Writing in New Scientist magazine he says: “The multiple roles of middle-aged people in human societies are so complex and intertwined, it could be argued that they are the most impressive living things yet produced by natural selection.”
Feeling better now? Get out and sport those wrinkles. Botox be damned! M

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