We’ve been through the greatest health crisis of modern times — and now face a huge economic crisis, with many people seriously worried about being able to pay their heating bills or mortgage.
On top of that, men and women in their 40s (known as Generation X) can expect to soon be hit by a major midlife crisis. That, at least, is the conclusion of a major new study by Warwick University.
The term ‘midlife crisis’ usually conjures up the image of a middle-aged bloke with a fake tan who’s bought a sports car and inappropriate designer clothes, while busily chasing younger women. But as this study makes clear, both sexes can experience a midlife crisis.
Based on surveys of more than 500,000 people in seven rich nations, including Britain and the U.S., the researchers found that it typically occurs at the age of 45, and is characterised by poor sleep, finding it difficult to concentrate, feeling overwhelmed at work, low mood, and a sense that life is not worth living.
I can identify with this research as in my late 40s I went through something similar. I’d recently lost my dad; I worried about being a good-enough parent to our four young children; my new boss was younger than me and although work was going well, I felt under constant, self-imposed, pressure to keep delivering ever better, more successful, documentaries.
Men and women in their 40s (known as Generation X) can expect to soon be hit by a major midlife crisis. (Stock image)
And although I would have denied I was going through a midlife crisis, around that time I began waking up at 3am almost every night.
To cope with the stress I ate junk food and drank more than I should; my weight crept up and there was a terrible moment when, at the age of 55, I discovered that I had high blood pressure, high blood fat levels and type 2 diabetes.
That was when I realised that I had to turn my life around — and with my wife Clare’s help, I did.
Losing weight, getting my blood sugar levels down to normal and eating less junk food all helped improve my health and mood.
So what triggers a midlife crisis? The term was coined by a Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques in 1957. At that time life expectancy was around 65 (it’s now 84) and so Jaques suggested it was a problem for people in their mid-30s.
As well as feeling depressed, he said those affected often become obsessed by their health, and try desperately to stay young. They also become very promiscuous — or more religious.
To cope with the stress I ate junk food and drank more than I should; my weight crept up and there was a terrible moment when, at the age of 55, I discovered that I had high blood pressure, high blood fat levels and type 2 diabetes. (Stock image)
In a paper he presented to the British Psychoanalytical Society in 1957, Jaques described a ‘patient’ (he later admitted it was himself), who was in his 30s and depressed.
A life that had once seemed full of endless possibilities was now on a downward slope that would inevitably lead to death. That, he suggested, was one of the major causes of a midlife crisis.
Was Jaques right? Well, lots of research since then has suggested that as we approach our mid-40s we become gloomier. And it seems plausible — this is, in part, because we realise that from here on, things are unlikely to get better, financially and/or biologically.
If, at a time when you fear that you have ‘peaked’ without achieving your goals, you also face the pressures of ageing parents and children fleeing the nest, it is not surprising that something gives.
But a midlife crisis is unlikely to be entirely driven by psychological or social factors because it seems that chimps and orangutans go through something similar.
In a survey, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012, zookeepers filled in a questionnaire assessing the wellbeing of more than 500 great apes in their charge. Questions included: ‘If you were that animal how happy do you think you would be on a scale of 1-7?’
This survey showed that, just like humans, in chimps and orangutans happiness seems to follow a U-shape: it’s high when they are young, falls in middle age (which, for a chimp in captivity is around the age of 20), and rises again as they move into old age.
As Professor Andrew Oswald, a behavioural scientist at Warwick University and one of the authors of the 2012 study (and also the latest study), pointed out: ‘We hoped to understand a famous scientific puzzle: why does human happiness follow an approximate U-shape through life? We ended up showing that it cannot be because of mortgages, marital break-up, mobile phones, or any of the other paraphernalia of modern life. Apes also have a pronounced midlife low, and they have none of those.’
We ended up showing that it cannot be because of mortgages, marital break-up, mobile phones, or any of the other paraphernalia of modern life. Apes also have a pronounced midlife low, and they have none of those.’
A midlife crisis is unlikely to be entirely driven by psychological or social factors because it seems that chimps and orangutans go through something similar. (Stock image)
Instead, he suggested that age-related changes in the brain may be making us more unhappy as we approach middle age.
There’s no guaranteed way to avoid a midlife crisis, but research shows that keeping friends and loved ones close is crucial to protecting our mental health as we get older.
I would also recommend doing a quick health audit, to see what shape you are in, and act on that.
This won’t stop you worrying about where your life is going, but making the following sorts of changes should improve both your physical and mental health.
Some of the simplest things you can do include measuring your waistline, blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
Around one in four adults in the UK has metabolic syndrome (a combination of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and a large waist) which puts them at greater risk not only of heart disease and stroke, but also depression.
So it’s best to find out early if you are at risk. And on the bright side, remember that for most people life really does get better after 60.
As an ardent dog-lover I’m in awe of the extraordinary abilities that canine noses confer — for instance, being able to smell in 3D, using the subtly different scents to tell where the smell is coming from.
I think dogs would make great doctors. Not only can they be trained to sniff out health conditions (such as dangerously low blood sugar levels, or even cancer), but now research by Queen’s University Belfast shows dogs can ‘smell’ if someone is stressed — just from a sample of their sweat and breath.
It seems humans excrete chemicals, called volatile organic compounds, which vary when we’re well or sick, stressed or happy. It’s more confirmation, if needed, that dogs really are sensitive and empathic souls.
Research by Queen’s University Belfast shows dogs can ‘smell’ if someone is stressed — just from a sample of their sweat and breath. (Stock image)
As new Health Secretary Therese Coffey contemplates her in-tray, I do hope that she’s planning to do something to curb the ever-rising sales of junk and ultra-processed foods (UPFs).
It would help to make the country slimmer and healthier. And possibly cut colon cancer rates — a new study in the British Medical Journal found that men who ate lots of UPFs were 29 per cent more likely to develop this disease than men who didn’t.
It’s thought that food additives or something leaching out of packaging might be affecting our gut bacteria, leading to cancerous changes.
Women were at no higher risk, possibly because they ate larger amounts of yoghurt, which might counteract the effects of UPFs.
Winter is coming, don’t delay booster jab
As we move into autumn, there are warnings of an impending ‘twindemic’ — a fresh wave of Covid combined with a new, more aggressive wave of flu.
This is being driven by new variants of both infections, which are better at evading our immune systems, and by the changes in our behaviour: as it gets colder, we huddle indoors with windows and doors closed, coughing in each other’s faces. A perfect way to spread an airborne infection.
People aged over 50 (as well as at-risk groups) are being encouraged to have another booster, a ‘bivalent’ jab for the original coronavirus as well as the Omicron variant. So is it worth it? Well, despite what anti-vaxxers claim, for most people the benefits clearly outweigh the risks.
A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S., for instance, showed that those who’d had two boosters are 79 per cent less likely to end up in hospital if they get Covid than those who haven’t been vaccinated and the protection is even higher if you are over 65.
People aged over 50 (as well as at-risk groups) are being encouraged to have another booster, a ‘bivalent’ jab for the original coronavirus as well as the Omicron variant
And if you still think Covid is no worse than a cold, I suspect you’ve not encountered any of the 2.3 million Britons with long Covid, or anyone who’s had a post-Covid stroke.
Research in the journal Circulation, which tracked 48 million British adults, found that in the week after getting Covid, people had a 21 times higher risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke.
So I’m booked in for both a flu and a Covid jab next week.
By then it will be five months since I caught Covid from my lovely wife — and having a jab now should provide me with maximum protection.
Studies suggest that if you have a second booster soon after having Covid, your immune response won’t be as effective as if you wait for four to six months. But don’t put it off too long, because winter is coming, and signs are the NHS will struggle.