Turning Forty? Time To Reflect on Your Health.

Growing old can come with a host of health risks, but our lifestyle choices can help

There aren’t a ton of things that get better with age. Wine and cheese make the cut, but the list is otherwise a short one, and the human body isn’t on it.

This is not a new sentiment. George Bernard Shaw famously quipped that “youth is wasted on the young.” (He also said that “every man over forty is a scoundrel.”) And for many of us, it is true. By the time we realize what is at stake as we age, we’ve already lost it. Despite the potential surgeries and infomercial snake oil, we never really get it back.

The good news, of course, is that what constitutes old is changing as life expectancies creep higher. Children born in Wisconsin in 2013 can expect to live to be eighty. Children born in neighboring Minnesota should best that and live past eighty-one.

In either case, that puts forty right about in the middle. But is it, as the headlines would suggest, the new thirty? The idea is that we’re living longer and staying active deeper into our lives than ever before. If Ironman Wisconsin is any kind of barometer, the metaphor bears out. Men aged forty to forty-five comprise the largest group of participants in the event. As far as midlife crises go, it’s hard to stack it up against a splashy sports car or garish tattoo. And while the training and the event itself are quite excessive, at least it falls on the healthy end of the spectrum.

So in many respects, modern forty is a lot like the thirty of previous generations. As some women put off having babies until they’ve established their careers and experienced a little bit of the world, they encounter at forty what women generations before did at thirty. For example, forty-year-olds now are likely to have school-aged children, while my mother-in-law was an empty nester at that point just twenty years ago.

Yet while we may have slowed the march of time, we haven’t stopped it. We can eat well and exercise to stave off heart disease and diabetes, but our hair still turns gray. For some men, it falls out. We can stay out of the sun and use sunscreen, but eventually our skin thins and wrinkles. We can wear sunglasses and eschew loud music, but it still gets harder to see and hear.

Those are mostly superficial things. The chances of getting breast cancer jump from one in 233 for women in their thirties to one in sixty-nine for women in their forties. Otherwise, metabolisms start to slow down and weight can creep up. That can lead to a host of health issues sooner and later.

None of this happens overnight. They are gradual changes that we don’t notice day to day. Our peers age with us, so we lack useful reference points from which to compare. But one morning we will glance in the mirror and see a different person staring back. Or we will flip through old photos and catch a glimpse of younger, thinner versions of ourselves.

There is an obvious reason why aging is scary. Mortality is a big, heavy, existential, spiritual and yet personal issue. We all face it with varying degrees of courage and fear. And chances are that those of us who cross over into our forties have seen glimpses of it. A friend who has battled cancer. A parent who has died. A devastating diagnosis.

Most of us have faced some sobering news that has robbed us of a bit of our innocence. Maybe all of it. We know that aging brings aches and pains. It also exposes deficiencies and delivers disappointments. Growing old is hard on the body. If we’re not careful, it can also be hard on the soul.

Jennifer Garrett is a Madison-based freelance writer. Read her Health Kick blog.

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