People like to complain about getting older. But I consider now an excellent time to be middle-aged. Not only is 50 the new 30 (if you eat right, get plenty of exercise, sleep enough, and don’t smoke), but there are also advantages to bringing up the rear of the baby-boom generation – especially in this technologically advanced and globally interconnected age.

Those of us pushing 50 now were barely 10 years old in 1968, when the Beatles went to India to meditate with the Maharishi. We grew up alongside our country’s growing holistic movement, so it’s no surprise that midlife finds us in an America replete with yoga studios, massage therapists, acupuncture clinics, meditation retreats…the list goes on. “Western” health-insurance companies have even begun to cover a few of the therapies once termed “alternative,” and now more commonly called “complementary care” or “integrative medicine.”

Then there’s the internet. How many people do you know who have searched online for all they can learn about their newly diagnosed illness, the treatment options and any clinical trials they might qualify for? Our parents did not have this option in their own mid-lives. Nor could they have bought a thermal-foam mattress, many and varied nutritional supplements, and the cutest sensible shoes, all for a song, on eBay.

See what I mean? It’s a great time to be middle-aged!

Change your mind, change your world

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet said that, and he was really onto something. Our habitual thought patterns frame the world as we see it – the world “out there,” as well as our private, internal world (for instance, how old is “old”?). If you can change your thinking, you can change your world view, about aging or anything else. Events on the planet continue as usual, of course. What changes is your understanding of your own place in the world, your unique role in this never-ending story called Life on Earth.

Or maybe your new way of thinking will simply reflect that you finally got your “serenity prayer” answered. That’s the one about changing the things you can (i.e., yourself), accepting the things you can’t (i.e., everything else), and having the wisdom to know the difference.

Note to self: you are not an old dog

No one likes to think of herself as “old and set in her ways.” But it wasn’t so long ago that medical science stated, flat out, that the human brain becomes “set in its ways” long before the body is old. What’s worse, brain cells could not regenerate, they told us, so any brain damage sustained in adulthood would be permanent.

Thank goodness medical science was wrong!

Today’s neuroscientists are discovering the marvelous truth that neuroplasticity, the ability of the human brain to regenerate and adapt, continues well into adulthood. Countless “miraculous recoveries” of seriously brain-damaged people have demonstrated the brain’s ability to reassign to new areas of brain tissue those functions lost through injury or stroke. All of us can rejoice in this news, and not just because we might find ourselves in that brain-damaged category someday.

Neuroplasticity means we’re not stuck with our bad habits. We can learn new tricks, better habits and healthier ways of thinking. And when we do, we change not only our minds, but our very brains! The infrastructure of neural pathways within the brain tissue literally changes. New pathways form, and the seldom-used ones begin to fade, like untraveled roads growing over with weeds.

Think of it! No matter what your age, you can grow your brain by challenging it! So do crossword puzzles. Juggle! Memorize poetry. Do math in your head. Stand on one foot…. Now do all these tricks at once! Oh yeah, and laugh more. Laughter changes the brain, too. For the better – need I mention?

You are running your thoughts

Ready to take back the reins? Get off the mental treadmill of worry and regret, those recurring thoughts that sap your strength and get you nowhere. You may think you have no control over them, but you do. Here are three approaches:

  • Derail that thought! As soon as you see a train of thought heading in the wrong direction, mentally derail it by clapping and calling, “Stop!” Or wear a rubber band around your wrist, to snap when thoughts go astray.
  • Resolve and release. Keep a “Lose It” pad handy and, instead of giving in to the habit you’re quitting – cigs, sarcasm, excessive shopping, whatever – dash off a quick note of resolve, rip it out, and “lose it.” Scribble, rip, crumple, toss. Repeat as necessary.
  • Move! Get out of your head and go for a walk. No thinking, just doing!

Two things in closing: It’s called “middle age” precisely because it’s not old, okay – and…barring unforeseens, you will get older. But the “set in your ways” part will remain completely optional.

Sheila Key is the co-author, with Peggy Spencer, M.D., of 50 Ways to Leave Your 40s: Living It Up in Life's Second Half (New World Library, 2008). For more details, visit www.newworldlibrary.com or call 1.800.972.6657 ext. 52. Copyright © 2008 by Sheila Key and Peggy Spencer, M.D.. Printed with permission of New World Library. All Rights Reserved.

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