Fending Off Father Time

What midlife crisis? Many men are adjusting to their changing health with sensitivity and good judgment

October 27, 2006|by Josh Fischman | by Josh Fischman,Los Angeles Times

Minding your health is not a young man's game. Muscles work smoothly in the teen years, joints flex easily in the 20s. It seems like young men can eat what they want, drink what they desire, and the pounds melt away as quickly as they put them on.

They can work 16-hour days, party until 3 a.m., and get up the next day and do it again. (Give or take a few bad hangovers, of course.) Life is a river, flowing to them effortlessly and endlessly.

Then sometime in the middle decades -- perhaps as men hit their mid-30s and approach 40, or sometimes 50 -- the river changes. It no longer flows quite so smoothly, quite so fast. Knees give out during a squash game. Hair gives out, well, every time a comb runs through it. And men begin to think that, beyond the next bend, the end of the river waits. They can't see it yet, but they know that it's there.

This, for many men, marks a turning point, not just physically but in the mind as well.

"You realize half of your life is over," says screenwriter Bruce McKenna, 44, who just moved from Los Angeles to Santa Fe, N.M. "I found myself thinking seriously about what to do with the rest of it. I hit 42, 43, and I was more worried about my kids, about them growing up" -- his children are 13, 11 and 8 -- "about wanting to spend more time with them. I worried about working myself to an unhealthy degree, and I worried about finances. So I decided to leave L.A. Not only is Santa Fe cheaper, but L.A. is just not an easy town to be middle-aged in. In my business, you're old if you're 30."

Health, like so much else for men in midlife, is in flux, and men like McKenna are reacting to it. Bodies and mind-sets are changing. Physically, men pack on more pounds around the middle during these years, and report more chronic, nagging illnesses.

At the same time, men increase their efforts to improve their well-being. Use of vitamins goes up, as does moderate and vigorous exercise, according to one of the largest studies ever done of middle age: a survey of 7,000 people called "Midlife Development in the United States." The health portion of that survey was published in 2004 as a book, How Healthy Are We?

"We begin seeing our bodies start to deteriorate, and that's just a reality we have to cope with," says David Almeida, a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University and one of the study investigators.

But men at midlife actually seem well prepared to cope. Men in their 40s seem better able to "recalibrate" than do men in their 20s, says Almeida. They feel they can make adjustments and change for the better. They reach out to others more and are less focused on themselves. In fact, men in midlife report fewer daily stresses than do women or younger men, according to the midlife development study.

The "midlife crisis" so often portrayed in the media -- a period of emotional tumult and strain, when men get divorced, buy a red Corvette, sleep with women half their age and get hair and pectoral implants -- is actually quite rare, researchers say.

Instead, most men in their 40s are people like McKenna, adjusting to a changing situation with sensitivity and good judgment. "The midlife crisis notion is pretty much a dead duck," says Michael Kimmel, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and author of the book Manhood in America. "It's a myth."

It certainly seems like a myth to Los Angeles resident Marty Sokol, 38, who produces reality shows for MTV and owns Club Chico, a nightspot in Montebello, Calif. "When you're in your 20s, you think a lot about what other people think of you. Now what's really important to me are my responsibilities to myself, to my employees and to my community."

Sokol says he does a lot of things now that he wouldn't have dreamed about a decade ago. He meditates every day. He eats a healthful breakfast: granola, yogurt, flax and things high in antioxidants. "In my 20s that would more likely to have been an Egg McMuffin." He also exercises three times a week at a local gym, focusing on stretching more than strength-building.

For Thomas Henderson, 44, a former lab technician at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, family and fitness came together.

"Yeah, I started feeling a few more twinges, maybe some arthritis, maybe carpal tunnel coming on. You start to wonder if these are harbingers of bigger problems," he says. "So I decided to start swimming." His two kids were in the Boy Scouts "and doing a lot of water activities. To supervise them, I needed to swim better myself. I started last year, and I was really a floundering beginner. Now I'm up to 1,000 yards a session, three or four times a week." He's still got a bit of a belly, "the ol' Buddha," but he doesn't obsess about it.

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