Compared with other animals, humans have a very unusual pattern to our lives. We take a very long time to grow up, we are long-lived, and most of us stop reproducing halfway through our life span. A few other species have some elements of this pattern, but only humans have distorted the course of their lives in such a dramatic way. Most of that distortion is caused by the evolution of middle age, which adds two decades that most other animals simply do not get.
An important clue that middle age isn’t just the start of a downward spiral is that it does not bear the hallmarks of general, passive decline. Most body systems deteriorate very little during this stage of life. Those that do, deteriorate in ways that are very distinctive, are rarely seen in other species and are often abrupt.
For example, our ability to focus on nearby objects declines in a predictable way: Farsightedness is rare at 35 but universal at 50. Skin elasticity also decreases reliably and often surprisingly abruptly in early middle age. Patterns of fat deposition change in predictable, stereotyped ways. Other systems, notably cognition, barely change.
Each of these changes can be explained in evolutionary terms. In general, it makes sense to invest in the repair and maintenance only of body systems that deliver an immediate fitness benefit — that is, those that help to propagate your genes. As people get older, they no longer need spectacular visual acuity or mate-attracting, unblemished skin. Yet they
do need their brains, and that is why we still invest heavily in them during middle age.
As for fat — that wonderfully efficient energy store that saved the lives of many of our hard-pressed ancestors — its role changes when we are no longer gearing up to produce offspring, especially in women. As the years pass, less fat is stored in depots ready to meet the demands of reproduction — the breasts, hips and thighs — or under the skin, where it gives a smooth, youthful appearance. Once our babymaking days are over, fat is stored in larger quantities and also stored more centrally, where it is easiest to carry about. That way, if times get tough we can use it for our own survival, thus freeing up food for our younger relatives.
These changes strongly suggest that middle age is a controlled and preprogrammed process not of decline but of development.
A crowning achievement
When we think of human development, we usually think of the growth of a fetus or the maturation of a child into an adult. Yet the tightly choreographed transition into middle age is a later but equally important stage in which we are each recast into yet another novel form.
That form is one of the most remarkable of all: a resilient, healthy, energy-efficient and productive phase of life that has laid the foundations for our species’s success. Indeed, the multiple roles of middle-aged people in human societies are so complex and intertwined, it could be argued that they are the most impressive living things yet produced by natural selection.
The claim that middle age evolved faces one obvious objection. For any trait to evolve, natural selection has to act on it generation after generation. Yet we often think of prehistoric life as nasty, brutish and short. Surely too few of our ancestors lived beyond age 40 to allow features of modern-day middle age, such as the deposition of a spare tire around the middle, to have been selected for.
This is a misconception. Although average life expectancy may sometimes have been very low, this does not mean that humans rarely reached the age of 40 during the past 100,000 years. Average life expectancy at birth can be a misleading measure; if infant mortality is high, then the average is skewed dramatically downward, even if people who survive to adulthood have a good chance of living a long, healthy life.
The evidence from skeletal remains suggests that our ancestors frequently lived well into middle age and beyond. Certainly many modern hunter-gatherers live well beyond 40.
The probable existence of lots of prehistoric middle-aged people means that natural selection had plenty to work on. Those with beneficial traits would have been more successful at nurturing their children to reproductive age and helping provide for their grandchildren, and hence would have passed on those traits to their descendants. As a result, modern middle age is the result of millennia of natural selection.
But why did it evolve as it did? In prehistory, and still today, human survival is entirely dependent on skilled gathering of rare, valuable resources. Humans cooperate, plan and innovate so they can extract what they need from their environment, be that roots to eat, hides to wear or rare metals to coat smartphone touch screens. We lead an energy-intensive, communication-driven, information-rich way of life, and it was the evolution of middle age that supported this.
For example, hunter-gatherer societies often have complex and difficult techniques for finding and processing food that take a long time to learn. There is evidence that many hunter-gatherers take decades to learn their craft and that their resource-acquiring abilities may not peak until they are older than 40.
Gathering sufficient calories is crucial for the success of a human community, especially since young humans take so long to grow up. Indeed, for the early years of life they devour calories without contributing many to the group themselves. Research suggests that a human child requires resources to be provided by multiple adults, almost certainly more than two young parents. For example, a recent study of two groups of South American hunter-gatherers suggested that each couple required the help of an additional 1.3 non-reproducing adults to provide for their children. Thus, middle-aged people may be seen as an essential human innovation, an elite caste of skilled, experienced super-providers on which the rest of us depend.
The other key role of middle age is the propagation of information. All animals inherit a great deal of information in their genes; some also learn more as they grow up. Humans have taken this second form of information transfer to a new level. We are born knowing and being able to do almost nothing. Each of us depends on a continuous infusion of skills, knowledge and customs, collectively known as culture, if we are to survive. And the main route by which culture is transferred is by middle-aged people showing and telling their children — as well as the young adults with whom they hunt and gather — what to do.
These two roles of middle-aged humans — as super-providers and master culture-conveyers — continue today. In offices, on construction sites and on sports fields around the world, we see middle-aged people advising and guiding younger adults and sometimes even ordering them about. Middle-aged people can do more, they earn more and, in short, they run the world.
This has left its mark on the human brain. As might be expected of people propagating complex skills, middle-aged people exhibit no dramatic cognitive deterioration. Changes do occur in our thinking abilities, but they are subtle. For example, response speeds slow down over the course of adulthood. However, speed isn’t everything, and it is still debated whether other abilities deteriorate at all.
To carry out their roles in society, middle-aged people need not necessarily think better than younger adults, but they may have to think differently. Indeed, functional brain imaging studies suggest that they sometimes use different brain regions than young people when performing the same tasks, raising the possibility that the nature of thought itself changes as we get older.
An elite club
A central and related feature of middle age is the many healthy years we enjoy after we have stopped reproducing. Female humans are especially unusual animals because they become infertile halfway through their lives, but male humans often also effectively “self-sterilize” by remaining with their post-menopausal partners. Almost no other species does this.
The possible benefits of menopause are not immediately obvious: After all, natural selection favors individuals who rear the most offspring. Yet there are other, rare examples of reproductive cessation in the animal kingdom that may provide some clues. Orcas also undergo menopause, and it is striking how much their lives mirror ours. They are long-lived, slow to develop, intelligent and vocally communicative. They invent and apply a complex array of techniques for communal food acquisition, and they are extremely widespread.
Thus, humans can be seen as members of an elite club of species in which adulthood has become so long and complicated that it can no longer all be given over to breeding. Just like farsightedness and inelastic skin, menopause now appears to be a coordinated, controlled process. It liberates women and their partners from the unremitting demands of producing children and gives them time to do what middle-aged people do best: live long and pamper.
Bainbridge is a lecturer at the University of Cambridge and author of “Middle Age: A Natural History” (Portobello). This article, based on that book, was written for New Scientist magazine, from which it is reprinted.