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The Author Speaks

What Is Middle Age?

Author Patricia Cohen explains why boomers have a hard time defining the second half of life

Exactly what is middle age?

Where, and how, did the term originate? Above all, why is the term so fraught with negative connotations today — and how do we handle that? Patricia Cohen, a reporter with the New York Times, was determined to find the answers to these and other burning questions.

See also: Excerpt from In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age.

Three generations of women - Defining and examining the new life roles and goals of being middle aged in America

In a youth-obsessed culture, boomers find it hard to define and embrace middle age. — Photo by Dann Tardif/LWA/Corbis

"I've always been interested in history," the 51-year-old New York-based writer said in an interview with the AARP Bulletin. "But while there are histories of childhood and of the teenage years, there didn't seem to be one of middle age." So, like so many writers before her, she wrote what she wanted to read – and ended up fulfilling a personal goal by completing her first book.

In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age delves into the invention of the idea of middle age in the second half of the 19th century. It also covers what Cohen calls "the middle age industrial complex." And it explains middle age as a source of identity as well as stress, opportunity and new beginnings.

Q. We want to celebrate middle age, yet we also want to deny it. Why such a catch-22 about this stage of life?

A. We live in a culture that celebrates youth so much, so the term is a particularly difficult one to navigate. At the same time, there's the demographic fact of the baby boom generation. There are so many people in this age group, and these shared numbers help in terms of what we're beginning to see, whether it's on television shows or whether people are more willing to admit to — or own up to — their age.

Q. Why is the term "middle age" so loaded?

A. It's taken on a negative connotation that's hardly flattering, just as the words "feminism" and "liberal" have taken on different meanings and negative connotations. "Middle age" has become a synonym for defeated, for tired. That's one reason why the alternate word "midlife" has increased in use recently. There aren't quite so many negatives attached to it.

Q. No matter what we call it, what's the best way for us to feel good about this stage?

A. Health is the most important indicator. If you're in good shape, it's a lot easier to feel good about middle age. We can't do at 50 what we did at 20, but we're much more aware of things we can do to maintain our physical and mental health. We know that physical exercise can help. An expert on cognitive ability and aging told me that physical exercise helps increase intelligence in old age. Which is amazing, when you think about it. If the fear of being fat doesn't get us into the gym, at least the fear of dementia might!

Next: Live a little and try something new. >>

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