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 a person’s health or physical functioning, they are sociallysignificant to many people (Lefrancois, 1999).
As people progress through middle adulthood, they experience senescence (primary aging) in the form ofmolecular 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 l pause-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 fluids, swollen breasts, and other aches and pains. Other women may have few or no noticeable physical symptoms. The psychological aspects of menopause are often as important as any physical effects. In one study,Anne Fausto-Sterling (1985) concluded that women 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 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, itis 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 mal’ h ve 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.