Is 50 Young or Old?
When U.S. solicitor general Elena Kagan was nominated in May for the Supreme Court, NPR commentator Nina Totenberg announced without a trace of irony, "She's young. She's only 50!"
Of course, I knew what Totenberg meant. If confirmed, Kagan will be the youngest of the nine justices and potentially could shape the Supreme Court's decisions for decades to come. Nevertheless, it was difficult to square this declaration of Kagan's "youth" with the fact that membership in AARP begins at 50. Is 50 young, or old?
The answer, of course, is that it's both. If Kagan weren't old enough to have amassed a substantial body of experience, she wouldn't be in the running. If she weren't young enough to look forward to a good many more productive years, she also wouldn't be in the running. And the same equation works for us mortals who don't aspire to high office. At 50 we qualify in many ways for the best of both age realms.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Part of this advantage is biological. Researchers at UCLA have found that complex reasoning skills improve in middle age, so we actually grasp and anticipate problems better than when we were young. We also become more empathetic with age, so we understand and connect with other people better than we used to.
But biology also presents certain unmistakable challenges at 50. Memory and reaction time slow, placing once readily accessible names and dates on the tip of the tongue--and keeping them there, sometimes for hours. The experts tell us our minds are flexible, and a combination of physical exercise and brain teasers such as Sudoku can keep us mentally spry, but they also admit that some of this slowing is normal and inevitable.
Other biological changes can be even more aggravating. When I turned 50 I was hot--all the time. Life was great. My husband and I had just celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary and were settling into a new home. I'd just published my third novel and was getting used to teaching as a new vocation. And, to my perpetual surprise, sales clerks seemed to have no difficulty matching my current face to the 10-year-old photograph on my license. But thanks to menopause, my body had become a human blast furnace. And the question that dominated my birthday thoughts was, If this happens to every 50-year-old woman on earth, why doesn't anybody warn us?
Going Up in Flames
That summer my husband and I took a trip to Banff, where smoke from rampant forest fires seemed an apt accompaniment for the radiant blaze that would erupt from the base of my spine every forty minutes or so. I'd sit quietly as we drove, marveling less at the hazy mountains than at the thermal surge between my lower back and the car upholstery. It took about 20 seconds for the heat to reach my toes and fingertips. The wave-like sensations reminded me of the nausea that had gripped me during early pregnancy, and of labor during childbirth. These, however, served the considerable purpose of producing a baby. Not even the National Institutes of Health have been able to identify a function for hot flashes.
When I tried to narrate the experience for my husband, he said it sounded like science fiction. Then he looked at me doubtfully and asked, "Is this normal?" Like many men, he'd hardly noticed when he sailed past his 50th birthday. At the time, he was just entering the prime of his career and played basketball three times a week. Our son was still in pre-school, and retirement was nowhere in sight. When an article in the health and fitness section of the newspaper inspired me to give him "the gift of health" in the form of a comprehensive 50th birthday medical checkup, my husband took it as an insult. When he passed his physicals at the top of the charts, he dared me to match his results when my time came. But since I was fourteen years behind him, my 50th birthday literally belonged to another century.
And in the meantime he'd have to pass yet another milestone--his 60th. "Congratulations," a doctor friend told him when that day arrived. "Now that you've survived your fifties, you'll probably live to a hundred."
We thought he was joking.
"No," he said. "The probability of death doubles for men in their fifties--a steeper increase than for any other decade."
And that, I thought between hot flashes in Banff, is the cosmic irony. Most men facing 50 don't have to fret about the imminent loss of their looks, their libido, their status or their minds, but they might want to make out a will. Fifty-year-old women, on the other hand, may feel like they're going up in smoke, but they'll likely outlive their husbands and brothers--and male Supreme Court counterparts--by decades. Poetic justice, or just desserts?
That depends, I decided, on how men and women alike face the inevitable. I subscribe to Jamie Lee Curtis's example. As she turned 50, the actress also known as Lady Haden-Guest (her husband Christopher Guest is a British Lord) jumped in a swimming pool without makeup, hair coloring or bathing suit for the cover photo of AARP Magazine. In the accompanying interview she said, "I feel way better now than I did when I was 20. I'm stronger, I'm smarter in every way, I'm so much less crazy than I was then... If I can challenge old ideas about aging, I will feel more and more invigorated."
Challenging old ideas is a tall order. We live in a society that worships youth and bombards us with "opportunities" to look and feel younger with the help of everything from nutritional supplements to plastic surgery. Some of those offers can be difficult to resist. I confess that my fascination with my own radiant heating paled after several months and hormone replacement therapy provided welcome relief. Was I succumbing to old ideas about aging or just managing the one truly intrusive aspect of aging that I've encountered since I turned 50? Since the remedy doesn't make me look or feel any younger, I consider the question to be moot. My goal is to get the most out of my 50s, not to turn back the clock.
The bottom line is that all of us lucky enough to reach the half-century mark deserve to celebrate this milestone. I was reminded of this when I asked my childhood friend Carolyn what she remembered about her 50th birthday six years ago. Carolyn has been living with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and a variety of secondary cancers and side effects since she was 35.
"I remember it well," she told me. "A few days earlier some friends had said, 'We can tell you now that when you were 40 we didn't expect you to make it to 50.'"
At that, Carolyn told her husband she wanted to have a party.
Always concerned about conserving her energy, he said, "Oh, we don't want to go to all that trouble."
"Oh," she replied. "Yes, we do."
They invited 20 of their closest friends. "It was exhausting," Carolyn told me with a sigh. "But it was so worth it."
SecondAct contributor Aimee Liu is the author of Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders, as well as the novels Flash House, Cloud Mountain and Face.