Caught in the Middle *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

Over a century ago, people rarely survived beyond age 40. Now most people can expect to live into their 70s or 80s. Previously, most psychological studies compared young adults with elderly adults. They seemed to ignore those in between, in their 40s and 50s.

In 1989, interdisciplinary research was launched — Midlife in the United States (MIDUS). Its purpose was to find the "major biomedical, psychological and social factors that permit some people to become fit, psychologically healthy and socially responsible adults." The studies surveyed a national random sample of 7,240 people aged 25-74. The core group included 4,240 men and women. In addition, 1000 of their siblings were surveyed. Another group included 1000 pairs of twins. A representative sample of 1,500 from racial and ethnic minorities was included.

As an interdisciplinary series of studies, MIDUS covered information from many different scientific fields. The fields of study included cultural anthropology, medicine, psychology and sociology. Beside basic statistics from surveys on health, economic and personality variables, the MIDUS studies used daily diaries, interviews, and other sources of information.

At this point, MIDUS researchers are still analyzing the bulk of their data. The investigation will not be complete for at least a year. Even with limited analysis, some trends have been found. This information sheds some light on how middle-aged people "manage their physical health, maintain their physical well-being and participate in their communities." Here are some initial trends.

1. People often underestimate their risks to their physical health. For example, one survey asked smokers about their perception of their health. Only 40% of smokers felt they had a higher risk of cancer than others their age. For heart attacks, only 30% perceived themselves at higher risk. Some smokers already had angina, high blood pressure or previous heart attacks. Even with these problems, less than 50% thought they had higher than average health risks.

2. A sense of control is related to health and happiness. One study asked subjects how "in control" they felt about aspects of their lives like health, work, finances and sex.  People who indicated more control over their lives seemed to be happier and healthier. Overall, subjects felt the least control over their finances and sex lives.

Men and women reported similar levels of control in most areas. However, men felt more control over their marriages than women. In comparison, women felt more control over their sex lives.

3. Gender and economic differences mediate people’s well-being. One study found six components of "well-being":

• feeling good about yourself and your life,

• maintaining meaningful goals,

• being able to manage the demands of daily life,

• having a sense of personal growth,

• having caring and trusting ties with other people,

• following one’s convictions.

With more education and higher job status, all subjects felt more well-off psychologically. They had more self-acceptance and purpose in life. Over all ages, women repeatedly indicated more positive relationships with others than men did.

4. People tend to be socially responsible. From their reports, respondents spent an average of 60 hours per month listening to, comforting or advising family and friends. In response, they received an average of 40 hours per month of similar help. Seventy percent of subjects provided tangible help to family and friends. These activities — usually chores, transportation or child care — averaged 23 hours a month. About 12 hours per month are spent in community volunteer services.

5. Discrimination, though less likely to damage success, can endanger health. Discrimination by race, ethnicity, gender, age or physical appearance was experienced 33% of the respondents. Gender extremely outranked all other criteria as a basis for discrimination. (Of course, women experienced much more discrimination than men.) Race ranked next, followed by age and weight.

Even when experiencing discrimination, most respondents thought it had not significantly affected their success. They indicated that they had to work harder to reach their goals. However, most believed they had achieved their goals in spite of the discrimination. Even so, their experiences with discrimination caused increased anxiety and depression.

From this and other information, success in middle age — rather than being ruled by biological changes — seems more determined by social and personal factors.

"Common sense" can be supported by research,
or research can expose it as a myth.

Although some of these preliminary conclusions may merely seem like "common sense," it helps to have information to back our beliefs. Some common social beliefs have been shown to be myths. Currently, both parents are more likely to work, and new options are opening for women. This means that some psychological landmarks of midlife are now essentially myths. For example, with interests outside the home, few (if any) women are likely to suffer the "empty nest syndrome" — symptoms of depression when the last child leaves home.

With changing conditions, other "common sense" ideas can become myths. Without continued research, it is hard to tell what is myth and what is reality. Likewise, it’s encouraging to have research evidence to support whatever you have thought to be true all along.

* Adapted from Beth Azar’s "Project explores landscape of midlife," The APA Monitor, November, 1996, page 26.

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