Prior to the twentieth century, life expectancy in the United States was only about 47 years, so the concept of middle adulthood-people between the ages of 40and 65-did not exist until fairly recently. Normal changes in appearance occur during these years, and although these changes have little relationship to aperson’s health or physical functioning, they are socially significant to many people (Lefrancois, 1999).
As people progress through middle ad lthood, they experience senescence (primary aging) in the form of molecular and cellular changes in the body. Wrinkles and gray hair are visible signs of senescence. Lessvisible signs include arthritis and a gradual dulling of the senses of taste, smell, touch, and vision. Typically,reflexes begin to slow down, but the actual nature and extent of change vary widely from person to person.And stereotypes and self-stereotypes about aging may often be important in determining changes in a person’s work ability (see “Sociology Works!”). People also experience a change of life in this stage. Women undergo nJelJopause-the cessation of the menstrual cycle caused by a gradual decline in the body’s production of the “female” hormones estrogen and progesterone. Menopause typically occurs between
the mid-forties and the early fifties and signals the end of a woman’s childbearing capabilities. Some women may experience irregular menstrual cycles for several years, followed by hot flashes, retention of body tluids,swollen breasts, and other aches and pains. Other women may have few or no noticeable physical symptoms.
The psychological aspe cts of menopause are oftenas important as any physical effects. In one study, Anne Fausto-Sterling (1985) concluded that mallYwomen respond negatively to menopause because of negative stereotypes associated with menopausal and postmenopausal women. These stereotypes make the natural process of aging in women appear abnormal when compared with the aging process of men. Actually, many women experience a ne\\’ interest in sexual activity because they no longer have to worry about the possibility of becoming pregnant. On the other hand, a few women have recently chosen to produce children using new medical technologies long after they have undergone menopause.Men undergo a climacteric, in which the production of the “male” hormone testosterone decreases. Some have argued that this change in hormone levels produces nervousness and depression in men, however, it is not clear whether these emotional changes are due
to biological changes or to a more general “midlife crisis:’ in which men assess what the)’ have accomplished (Benokraitis, 2002). Ironically, even as such biological
changes may’ have a liberating effect on some people,they may also reinforce societal stereotypes of older people, especially women, as “sexless,” Recently, intensive marketing of products such as Viagra for erectile dysfunction has made people of all ages more aware not only of the potential sexual problems associated
with aging but also with the possibility of reducing or solving these problems with the use of prescription drugs. Along with primary aging, people in middle adulthood also experience secondary agil/g, which occurs as a result of environmental factors and lifestyle choices. For example, smoking, drinking heavily, and engaging in little or no physical activity are factors that affect the aging process. People who live in regions with high levels of environmental degradation and other forms of pollution are also at greater risk of aging more rapidly and having chronic illnesses and diseases associated with these external factors. About 30 percent of allpeople in middle adulthood find that they are part of the “sandwich generation;
having not only the responsibility of raising their children but also of simultaneously taking care of their aging parents-often while holding a full-time job, as well. The burden of these responsibilities disproportionately falls on women: “It’s not like your husband is going to wash his own mother,” a female forty-two-year-old former lawyer noted. “There’s just 110 amount of feminism that is going to change that” (Vincent, 20(j~ On the positive side, middle Hood for some people represents the tim/! during which (l) they have the highest levels of income and prestige, (2) they leave the problems of child rearing behind them and are content with their spouse of many years, and (3) they may have grandchildren, who give then another tie to the future. Even so, persons during middle adulthood know that, given society’s current structure, their status may begin to change signifi canrly when they reach the end of this period of their lives. As previously discussed, those who had few opportunities available earlier in life tend to become increasingly as they grow older.