Yes, magic. It’s a wondrous process that has more positives than negatives. Middle age and beyond is not something most species get to live through. New ideas suggest that this vital later phase of life is precisely why human beings have ended up taking over the planet!
If you are over 50, pat yourself on the back, for being Nature’s most highly evolved organism. Biologically and socially, you are streets ahead of the youngsters who hog today’s limelight!
But why did evolution take us down that path? The answer is inextricably bound up with the exceptional nature of humans. We are a brilliantly adaptive species, for which the process of learning has been crucial. Today we can read books and Google information. But before the advent of writing, much less computers, skills had to be learned and it took time; decades in fact.
Oftentimes, the necessary skills were not accumulated till after the age of 40. Surviving long enough to acquire these skills would be a strong evolutionary advantage, which would be selected for by Nature.
These skills would be passed on to other members of the tribe and that would give them the advantage over competitors, whether the human kind of the sabre-toothed kind! We would quickly “develop” a middle age, even if we didn’t start with one.
Middle age would be a valuable commodity that Nature chose for us!
Important changes take place in middle age which, although we resist them, do seem to have positive qualities. Most body systems deteriorate very little during this stage of life. We just start to look different (not true of most species). The mind could be stronger, not weaker.
This came home to me vividly one day in the National Archeological Museum at Athens. I was looking at a magnificent bronze of a Poseidon (Neptune), carrying a spear. Presumably he was considered a god because he was smart? He had hard abs and a flat belly, he looked lean, fit and mean; then it struck me… This “god” was in his forties! Not fifties or sixties; he’s too fit for that: he was middle aged!
So: to carry out their roles in society, middle-aged people need not necessarily think better or worse than younger adults, but they may have learned to think differently. Indeed, functional brain imaging studies suggest that they sometimes use different brain regions than young people when performing the same tasks, raising the possibility that the nature of thought itself changes as we get older.
But it’s a slow change. You can see it just by looking at older people: they are barely different in their thoughts and attitudes, just because their skin has gone wrinkly, they now need glasses and they have a pot belly! Only right at the very end do we tend to slide down the slope of decay.
Even that may be abnormal. There is still heated debate over whether the proportion of the population who lose mental function are really part of the normal spectrum or that they had a disease process running that we call senescence. The alert mental faculties seen in extreme old-age individuals, some of them beyond 120 years of age, suggests that any degree of mental decline is pathological, rather than “normal”.
Again, you only have to look to begin realizing that older people are actually evolved—developed, if you like. They are, well… wiser! In many ways they are fitter to survive than youngsters, that do not have the survival skills that the elders have learned over the years.
The evolved mature adult, which we call middle-aged, may be just about the most advanced thing on the planet! That creature is so full of knowledge and skills that he or she is able to conquer the environment.
Middle aged and wise individuals may be the very reason Mankind has become such a successful species. Collectively, older people have developed, held and transmitted the knowledge that has enabled us to survive, by cleverly learning to extract resources which are beyond the reach of most species, so giving us the edge.
This supposes that in the past many adults have reached middle age. But isn’t it true that most primitive societies lead lives that are short, nasty and brutish, as Thomas Hobbes said?
Actually, that’s a misconception. True, in times past, life expectancy was appallingly short by today’s standard: 35 or less, compared the today’s value of around 75 years or more). But that was almost entirely due to the high infant mortality.
Once past the danger zone, as it were, then adults, even in Stone Age times, tended to live till middle age and beyond. Archeological pre-history records make that clear. When we reach documented history, then it is discovered that adults could survive till their eighth or ninth decade.
Even in Ancient Greece, making it to 90 or 100 was not amazing. Democritus is said to have lived to over 100; Xenophanes of Colophon and Eratosthenes of Cirene, to 95 years; and Pyrrho of Ellis, to 90. This was long before antibiotics and low cholesterol diets!
Epimenides of Crete (7th, 6th centuries BC), was said to have lived 154, 157 or even 290 years. Do not dismiss such an idea. I have already said in my book How to Live Beyond 100 Years that we already have the mechanisms, without modern science, to live to 300 years on average.
So middle and old age has always been around. I have hinted it is valuable, to the individual and to the tribe. Maybe we have evolved a middle age period, which is not shared by other species?
In prehistory, and still today, human survival is entirely dependent on skilled gathering of rare, valuable resources. Humans cooperate, plan and innovate so they can extract what they need from their environment – be that roots to eat, hides to wear or rare metals to coat smartphone touchscreens. We lead an energy-intensive, communication-driven, information-rich way of life, and it was the evolution of middle age which supported this.
For example, hunter-gatherer societies often have complex and difficult techniques for finding and processing food that take a long time to learn. There is evidence that many hunter-gatherers (which is what we really are) take decades to learn their craft and resource-acquiring abilities may not peak until they are over 40.
Gathering sufficient calories is crucial for the success of a human community, especially since young humans take so long to grow up. Our children are virtually parasites for their first 10 to 14 years.
Research suggests that a human child requires resources to be provided by multiple adults – almost certainly more than two young parents. For example, a recent study of two groups of South American hunter-gatherers suggested that each couple requires the help of an additional 1.3 non-reproducing adults to provide for their children (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, vol 276, p 1674).
Thus, middle-aged people may be seen as an essential human innovation, an elite caste of skilled, experienced “super-providers” on which the rest of us depend.
The other key role of middle age is the propagation of information. We are born knowing and being able to do almost nothing. Each of us depends on a continuous infusion of skills, knowledge and customs – collectively known as culture – if we are to survive. And the main route by which culture is transferred is by middle-aged people showing and telling their children what to do, as well as the young adults with whom they hunt and gather.
So, if you made it this far, give yourself a hearty round of applause. You deserve it, you super-being you!
Make sure you keep going, by reading my book How to Live Beyond 100 Years!