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Photos: Peaking at midlife

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  1. Julianne Moore

    Julianne Moore, 50, stars in the Oscar-nominated "The Kids Are All Right." She and Annette Bening played a lesbian couple whose lives are thrown into chaos when they meet the man who donated sperm to create their children. Bening was nominated for an Oscar, and many feel Moore should have been. (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Robert Downey Jr.

    Robert Downey Jr., 45, is proof that Hollywood always loves a comeback. After years of drug troubles, he's cleaned up and wowing audiences as "Iron Man" and "Sherlock Holmes" in those popular movie series. (Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Oprah Winfrey

    Some call Oprah Winfrey, 57, the most influential woman in the world, yet she was born into poverty. Her uber-successful talk show wasn't enough for Winfrey -- in 2011, she started her own television network, OWN. (Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart

    Talk-show hosts Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart really earned fame in their 40s when they began hosting "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show." Colbert is 46, Stewart 48. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Pierce Brosnan

    Pierce Brosnan is 57, but he still looks like he could smash a supervillain and court a Bond babe as Special Agent 007. Brosnan gave up the Bond role in 2002, but he's still a busy actor. He starred in four films in 2010. () Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Hugh Laurie

    The doctor is in. At 51, Hugh Laurie is the highest-paid actor in a television drama for his starring role as a cranky but brilliant doctor in "House." (Kevin Winter / Getty Images for Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Javier Bardem

    Spanish actor Javier Bardem, 41, won women's hearts as Julia Roberts' boyfriend in 2010's "Eat Pray Love," and then was nominated for an Oscar for 2010's "Biuitiful." (Carlos Alvarez / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Halle Berry

    Is that the face of a 44-year-old? Halle Berry is struggling with custody issues in 2011, but her career never seems to struggle. She's one of Hollywood's most highly paid actresses, and was nominated for a Golden Globe for 2010's "Frankie and Alice." (Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Jeff Bridges

    Suddenly, 61-year-old Jeff Bridges is everywhere. In 2010, he starred in "Tron Legacy," the sequel to the 1982 original, as well as "True Grit," the Coen brothers' remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic. Bridges, who won the best actor Oscar in 2010 for "Crazy Heart," is nominated again for "True Grit." (Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Steve Carell

    You may not want him as your boss -- 48-year-old Steve Carell plays a manager from hell on "The Office," although he's about to leave that show. But you may envy his bank balance -- he starred in three major films in 2010, "Dinner for Schmucks," "Date Night" and "Despicable Me," for which he provided the voice of a loopy animated villain. (Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. George Clooney

    George Clooney turns 50 in May 2011, and just keeps getting better with age. In addition to roles in "The American," "Up in the Air" and other films, he's known for his humanitarian work. He's also pretty easy on the eyes. (Michael Loccisano / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Conan O'Brien

    Sometimes you don't know who your friends are until you need them. When a shakeup at NBC put Conan O'Brien out of a job, fans calling themselves "Team Coco" mobilized to support the 47-year-old comedian and talk-show host. He quickly landed on his feet with a new TBS show, "Conan." (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Patrick Dempsey

    He's the kind of doctor who makes you want to get sick. Patrick Dempsey, 45, is the hearthrob brain surgeon of "Grey's Anatomy," but still finds time for a movie career and his hobby of racing cars. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Jennifer Aniston

    Jennifer Aniston said in an interview that being over 40 felt "weird," but the 42-year-old doesn't show any signs of slowing down. She's established herself as a romantic-comedy lead in the movies since her iconic sitcom, "Friends," ended in 2004. (Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Johnny Depp

    Johnny Depp, 47, proudly marches to the beat of a different drummer. In recent years, the star who got his start on "21 Jump Street" has proved he can take any role, like The Mad Hatter in 2010's "Alice in Wonderland," and make it his own. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Tina Fey

    At 40, Tina Fey seems to have it all. A happy marriage and daughter; starring role in her own show, "30 Rock"; and the respect of her peers and fans. In 2010, she was the youngest-ever winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. And she can see Russia from her house. (Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Colin Firth

    It's good to be King. Colin Firth, 50, is the overwhelming favorite to win the best actor Oscar for his role as King George VI in "The King's Speech." He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2011. (Dave Hogan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Arianna Huffington

    Arianna Huffington, 60, is charging ahead in new media as the co-founder of the Huffington Post news site. In 2011, AOL announced it would acquire the site for $315 million. (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Jay-Z

    At 41, Jay-Z is one of the most financially successful hip-hop artists in the U.S. He's also an entrepreneur, has his own clothing line, and is part owner of the NBA's New Jersey Nets. (Peter Kramer / AP Photo/Peter Kramer) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Jennifer Lopez

    It would seem that, at 41, Jennifer Lopez couldn't get any more high-profile. But then the singer joined the judging panel of "American Idol," sitting next to Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson, and suddenly she was everywhere again. (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Nicole Kidman

    She's 43, and she's on an Australian postage stamp. Nicole Kidman didn't let her 2001 divorce from Tom Cruise keep her out of the spotlight. She's now married to country star Keith Urban, has two daughters with him in addition to her two children with Cruise, and is up for the best actress Oscar for "Rabbit Hole." (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Melissa Leo

    Is 50 too late to burst on to the scene? Not if you're Melissa Leo, who received her first Oscar nomination in 2009 for "Frozen River" and her second in 2011 for "The Fighter." (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Brad Pitt

    Brad Pitt, 47, could make the front page by changing the type of cereal he eats. He and partner Angelina Jolie and their six children are constantly in the news, and parenting hasn't slowed down their movie careers. In 2011, Pitt will star in "The Tree of Life" and "Moneyball." (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Barack and Michelle Obama

    U.S. President Barack Obama won't be 49 until August, but some say a little gray is sneaking into those presidential temples. Doesn't matter to wife Michelle, 47, who works with military families and is leading the fight against childhood obesity. (Philippe Wojazer / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 2/20/2011 1:13:30 PM ET 2011-02-20T18:13:30

He turns off the alarm, stares into a bowl of soggy cereal, puts on a tired-looking suit and goes to the office for more of the same drab routine. And so it continues until one day, usually the day he realizes he is mortal (or starting to lose his hair), he goes berserk: He has sex with his secretary, quits his job and buys a red convertible.

And we all nod, acknowledging the inevitable, stereotypical midlife crisis. One made Monica Lewinsky famous, another earned "American Beauty" a best picture Academy Award and the concept is as embedded in our culture as the belief in the power of positive thinking.

But the idea that midlife crises are common is a myth, experts say.

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"It makes for good novels or good movies, but it is not really accurate," said psychologist Margie Lachman of Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

"There is no specific time in life that predisposes you to crisis," said Alexandra Freund, a life-span researcher at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

"There can be times when things crystallize as very problematic, a very deep disturbance in your life," Freund told LiveScience. "People experience these types of crises, but they are not at all related to age."

Instead, Lachman said, crises are usually spurred by some event that can happen at most any age, such as a career setback, the death of a friend or relative, or an illness.

Epidemiologists have found no spike in negative events — such as career disillusionment — in middle age, Freund explained.

So if the revitalized libido and sudden hankerings for sports cars are purely the stuff of Hollywood, then what does happen to a person during these years?

Personality stabilizes
One of the popular misconceptions is that midlife crises are spurred by a sudden realization that the values and goals of youth have been abandoned for more comfortable, and achievable, aspirations; that the person has "sold out."

Freund finds such concerns puzzling. "Selling out to whom?" she asked.

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In the process of figuring themselves out, young people will wrestle with establishing personal goals and values. After young adulthood, however, personality remains relatively stable for the rest of one's life, researchers have found.

As for goals, new ones are usually variations of the original goal and are aligned with the person's core values, Freund said. For example, a person may be focused on contributing to academia — first, as a graduate student, by publishing papers in her mid-20s, but then, in her 50s, through teaching undergraduates. It's not the values that usually change, it's the approach.

Some cultures don't even have a concept of midlife, let alone a midlife crisis, according to research presented in Richard Shweder's book "Welcome to Middle Age! And Other Cultural Fictions."

But in Western cultures, midlife is typically defined as anywhere from 30 to 75 years old, depending on the age of the person asked. When pressed, psychologists say midlife is between 40 and 65 years old, placing some Oscar nominees smack in the middle — that's right, Colin Firth, Javier Bardem (of "Biutiful"), Annette Bening, and even Nicole Kidman has just stepped into the ring. And Tina Fey, John Stewart, Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert and a host of others in their middle years are at the height of their careers.  But Lachman and Freund stress that chronological age is not the best marker.

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Perhaps a better definition is being the middle age within one's social niche. In midlife, people typically have close relationships with people both older and younger than themselves. For example, many middle-age adults are caring for not only their kids but also their aging parents.

Midlife without the crisis
In middle age, people tend to focus on making positive contributions to society through the interactions of people of significantly different ages. Such interactions include formal and informal mentee/mentor relationships, stratified workplace relations and cross-generation family dynamics.

Middle-age adults are "no longer driven, but now the drivers," say researchers Bernice Neugarten and Nancy Datan in their paper "The Middle Years" ("The Foundations of Psychiatry," Basic Books, 1974).

Critically, middle adulthood comes with a greater sense of control then other life periods. Young adulthood, by contrast, is usually a time of striving, and late adulthood is typically a time of loss, including of one's job, health and friends.

The most common complaint in midlife is not boredom, as many young people fear, nor a feeling of crisis. "People are experts of themselves at this age," Freund said. "They know what is good for them and what isn't."

Rather, researchers conducting large surveys have found that the main problem for middle-age people is feeling unable to get everything done.

"In middle adulthood, you are living at your fullest. You've achieved a lot in your job, the kids are growing up, you are healthy and have more resources than when you were a student. There is not much mortality in your social circle. … You know where you are going and don't question yourself all the time anymore," Freund said.

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Not that midlife is void of critical changes: Menopause, andropause (male menopause), the emptying of the nest, and the death of a parent all often happen during middle adulthood. But not everyone sees these changes as negative. Menopause and an empty nest, for example, can result in a newly flourishing sex life.

When people in their later life were asked what age they would most like to be, they usually said the mid-40s, Freund said.

The origins of a myth
If midlife is actually so great, where did this concept of a midlife crisis come from?

In the 1960s, a psychologist named Elliott Jaques coined the term "midlife crisis" based on his studies of clinical patients and artists, who were dealing with depression and angst about getting older.

The term "midlife crisis" caught on like wildfire, because everyone knows someone who fits the mold, Freund told LiveScience. But what about all the people we know who don't fit the mold?

Freund, Lachman and most modern psychologists dismiss Jaques' case studies as not representative of the average Joe. "Artists are known to dramatize their lives; it is their job almost," Freund points out, and the more neurotic among us are more prone to crises in any life stage.

Despite decades of research debunking it, the concept lingers in Western culture, particularly in its application to men. The original promoters of the midlife crisis theory painted a picture of men as "late bloomers," Freund said, who bumbled along without thinking until they heard a wake-up call in midlife. More recent research, Freund said, has shown that men are just as self-reflective as women, and that neither gender is prone to life-changing crises based on age.

As for the idea that midlife spurs worries about mortality, Freund says the timing is off. People tend to think about death in adolescence, when they realize it will really happen to them, and then again in late life, when they realize their time is coming. In middle adulthood, people are too busy to worry much about death, she said.

Still, the concept of a midlife crisis may be useful even if it is a misnomer. In midlife, we get a glimpse into later life, and we can make appropriate adjustments "physically, financially and socially," Lachman said. For example, the first signs of chronic illness appear in middle adulthood — at a time when something can still be done about them.

Most people, however, make adjustments throughout life, not just in midlife. "Life is a process, life is everyday," Freund said. "It is all cheesy stuff, but it is true."

7 ways the mind and body change with age

10 things you didn't know about you

5 myths about the male body

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

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