Meet the New Middle Age, as personified by women who are extending the prime of life, with all its rich emotional, intellectual, and spiritual potential, way beyond the short horizons that defined their mothers’ middle years.
Are you among them? If so, you know that a lengthy, vibrant “second act” rests upon two key pillars. The first pillar: a lifelong commitment to preventive health. This is where we come in. We’ve sifted through the latest research about how to remain physically strong, ward off diabetes and heart disease, preserve perceptual skills, and bolster an immune-boosting sunny outlook.
The second pillar: an active social life. We’re all aware of the protective benefits of emotionally satisfying relationships. Now, new research details the advantages conferred by happy friendships — advantages so powerful they reach even to people on the fringes of those friendships. Exponents of the New Middle Age intuitively grasp this “power of the people.”
We outline the building blocks of the New Middle Age here and show you how to imbue your second act with more personal contentment, joy, and vibrancy than you ever thought possible.
A strong heart
It's the engine that drives an active lifestyle, essential to your ability to maintain healthy muscles and bones, a sharp mind — even an upbeat attitude.
Your mom's middle age:It was all about cholesterol. If it was normal, she'd ignore it; if it was high, she'd control it with a low-fat diet.
The new middle age: Get a heart scan after menopause.
Even women with normal cholesterol levels can have heart disease, so "talk to your doctor about getting a CT coronary artery scan," says Mehdi Razavi, MD, a heart specialist at the Texas Heart Institute. The test, which measures calcium accumulation in arteries (a predictor of heart attack risk), can spot trouble even when other tests, such as those that check cholesterol levels, are normal.
Embrace the Mediterranean diet. Not all heart-healthy diets are created equal. The hands-down winner is the Mediterranean diet, which prevents and even reverses heart disease. Patients whose diets feature monounsaturated fats from olive or canola oil, nuts, and fish, along with abundant fruits and vegetables, reduced their recurrence of heart problems by 50 to 70%, according to the Lyon Diet Heart Study in France.
A sharp pair of eyes is key to getting up and down the mountain, so to speak — and reveling in all of nature's glory during the hike. Sadly, age-related macular degeneration, a disease that damages the retina, eventually threatens the vision of about one-third of people.
Your mom's middle age: What will be will be. She — and her doctors — believed that AMD could not be prevented.
The new middle age: See better with supplements. Those with vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and zinc can slow vision loss by 25% in people with early signs of AMD, according to health economist David B. Rein, PhD, a scientist at the research firm RTI International in Research Triangle Park, NC.
A good laugh is one of the easiest and most reliable tools for managing health-debilitating stress.
Your mom's middle age:She laughed when she felt like it.
Experts then thought a sense of humor was determined only by your genes — you're either cheerful or you're not.
The new middle age:Schedule regular "laughercise." Loma Linda University researcher Lee Berk, DrPH, has tested the effects of what he calls "mirthful laughter" by asking volunteers to spend time doing nothing more complicated than watching TV comedies. He found that even anticipating a laugh improves function of immune-enhancing hormones. Berk's latest study found that over the course of a year, the levels of good HDL cholesterol in volunteers participating in a mirthful-laughter group jumped 26%, while their levels of C-reactive proteins, a measure of inflammation linked to both heart disease and diabetes risk, dropped 66%. "We call it laughercise," he explains, "because the benefits of laughter are so much like those of physical activity."
Stable blood sugar
For most people, type 2 diabetes is preventable--meaning the associated higher risks of heart attack, circulation problems, and dementia are too.
Your mom's middle age: She tried to eat complex carbs — whole grains, nuts, and vegetables — which studies then suggested was the key to preventing diabetes.
The new middle age: Focus more on total calories. "Losing weight if you're overweight is the single most important thing you can do," says William C. Knowler, MD, DrPH, a diabetes researcher with the National
Institutes of Health. Osama Hamdy, MD, PhD, of the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, says overweight people should shoot for losing about 7% of their total body weight: "For most people, that's enough to cut their risk of developing diabetes in half."
Can you think of a finer late-summer night's activity than attending an outdoor concert on a lush greensward with friends? Unfortunately, one in three Americans has high-frequency hearing loss that diminishes the experience, according to a 2008 report in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Your mom's middle age: She used earplugs — when she remembered. The only way to protect hearing, she thought, was to avoid sustained loud noises, a leading cause of hearing loss.
The new middle age:Eat your veggies. "We used to think hearing loss occurred when tiny hair cells in the inner ear were torn apart by vibrations from loud noises," explains hearing expert Colleen Le Prell, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Florida. "We now know that part of the problem is the accumulation of free radicals, which are toxic to hair cells." Animal studies show that antioxidants may neutralize free radicals, protecting against both short- and long-term damage. Researchers also just reported that 46 volunteers with age-related hearing loss improved their hearing at all frequencies after taking a combination of antioxidants for 13 weeks. Researchers don't yet know the optimal level or mix of antioxidants for hearing protection. Until they do, take a standard multivitamin and load your plate with antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables — and, of course, avoid very loud, sustained noises, says Le Prell.
They're not only fun to hang around with — real pals also evoke a host of positive emotions that bolster immunity.
Your mom's middle age: She was all about family. She believed that family and marriage created the most important emotional bonds in a person's life.
The new middle age:Friends save lives. A Harvard School of Public Health study of more than 2,800 women with breast cancer found that those without close friends were 4 times more likely to die than women with 10 or more friends. A Swedish study reports that for heart attack prevention, having friendships is second only to not smoking.
Surrounding yourself with cheerful companions may be especially beneficial. In a surprising report last year, James H. Fowler, PhD, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, showed that happiness spreads through social networks, affecting not only friends but also friends of friends. "Our research showed that a person is 15% more likely to be happy if a close contact is happy as well," he explains.
A strong skeleton provides the foundation for an active lifestyle, essential to your ability to bike through wine country, tend your vegetables, and romp with your grandkids.
Your mom's middle age: She got plenty of calcium and vitamin D, both of which are crucial to maintaining bone mass.
The new middle age: Add protein to the mix. "In addition to calcium and D, which are very important, you need a steady supply of protein to keep bones strong," explains Robert P. Heaney, MD, a professor of medicine at Creighton University and a leading expert on osteoporosis. He believes dairy products such as milk and yogurt are the best sources of calcium because they contain the whole suite of nutrients, including protein, that you need for healthy bones. Boosting vitamin D with supplements (take at least 1,000 IU daily) is particularly important as you get older, he points out, because the skin becomes less efficient at generating this crucial nutrient from sunlight.
Skiing, tennis, biking, even ballroom dancing — all require excellent balance, particularly the ability to recover quickly from an unexpected bump or trip-up. One-third of older adults suffer tumbles, and serious falls can hamper your ability to remain active.
Your mom's middle age: She walked and did light aerobics, believing just staying in reasonably good shape would suffice.
The new middle age: Lift and flex. "Exercises that promote balance, flexibility, and strength are equally important," says Bonita Lynn Beattie, a physical therapist and vice president for injury prevention at the Center for Healthy Aging in Washington, DC. "Dance classes, tai chi, and yoga are all great activities for preserving a strong sense of balance." Also make sure you're getting adequate vitamin D. A study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that older people who took an 800 IU supplement daily had 72% fewer falls.
Illnesses that can be prevented with vaccines cause almost 50,000 deaths a year in the United States and make many more people needlessly ill. Staying current is a proven lifesaver.
Your mom's middle age:She thought immunization was for kids. Her outdated view persists today, according to a 2007 survey by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. The organization found that 40% of American adults wrongly believe that because they got shots as a child, they don't need to worry about vaccinations.
The new middle age:Get your shots. Only 42% of people ages 50 to 64 typically get yearly flu shots. Shingles, an excruciatingly painful disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus, strikes one in three Americans, yet only 2% of those age 60 and older have received the vaccine that can prevent the infection or reduce its painful symptoms. Tetanus-diphtheria boosters are recommended every 10 years — protection many people in middle age neglect. The next time you see your doctor, ask if you're due for any shots.