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The ‘mid-life crisis' is more than just a theory, new study finds

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The ‘mid-life crisis' is more than just a theory, new study finds

People in their midlife are disproportionately more likely to suffer from clinical depression, take their own lives, become dependent on alcohol, have trouble sleeping, and exhibit other extreme-stress ailments.

In the CAGE working paper, ‘The Mid-life Crisis’, Osea Giuntella, Sally McManus, Redzo Mujcic, Andrew J. Oswald, Nattavudh Powdthavee and Ahmed Tohamy use a wide array of population-level health data across all ages to prove that midlife crises are real and affect a high number of people in developed countries.

People in their 40s and 50s in developed countries are typically at their peak earnings and usually have not yet experienced significant illness or disability. Yet, adults in this age bracket report finding it hard to concentrate, say they more likely to forget things, are more likely to suffer from migraines and feel more overwhelmed at work. They are also more likely to suffer depression, develop dependency on alcohol and commit suicide.

The paradoxical association between high living standards and rising dissatisfaction in midlife is yet to be explained. But the findings are a clarion call for policymakers to pay attention to the issue.

The research uses decades’ worth of panel and longitudinal data on health and wellbeing capturing the experience of around 500,000 individuals from developed countries including the UK, USA, France and Australia.

Nine key natural distress indicators were picked from a wide range of surveys including the British household panel survey (BHPS) and the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey. These indicators were: suicide, sleeping problems, alcohol dependence, concentration difficulties, memory problems, intense job strain, disabling headaches, suicidal feelings, and extreme depression.

The results drawn from these data sources prove the existence of the midlife crisis. All the markers of distress that were measured followed a consistent trend that peaks between people’s late 40s and early 50s.

Strikingly, the data shows that those in midlife are twice as likely to be depressed than those under the age of 25 or over the age of 65. Suicide rates, the ultimate measure of exceptional distress within a society, were also shown to be the highest among individuals in their early 50’s.

The authors make sense of this by considering the cumulative effect of how smaller issues like poor sleep, headaches and job stress mount up and affect those in middle age over time. For example, panel data from 18,000 Canadians found that migraines peaked in midlife. Migraines were also found to be one of the strongest predictors of extreme depression.

Within-person longitudinal changes in migraines from a sample of over 200,000 people from the BHPS shows a similar trend. The data is controlled for socioeconomic variables including an individual's income and the number of young children they might have. Noticeably, migraines spike at the midlife point, between the ages of 40 and 50.

This peak is found across a fleet of other measures taken by the authors, for example, in reports of alcohol dependence and suicidal thoughts for a one-year period in 2014 from the NHS’s Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS). For the 7,500 recordings taken, the peak observation level is yet again observed at midlife in the 40–50 age bracket. The trend is the same for the other six indicators of distress (suicide, sleeping problems, concentration difficulties, memory problems, intense job strain, and extreme depression) mentioned above.

While no definitive explanation has yet been found to explain the midlife crisis, the authors were able to rule out the effects of income differentials and children.

Intriguingly, the spikes at midlife found in the authors’ data are also found in data relating to our primate relatives, chimpanzees and orang-utans.

Whether midlife crises are caused by societal pressures or are an innate biological phenomenon, the extensive evidence of the midlife crisis across the developed world shows that governments need to start paying attention to what is driving unhappiness in society.

  • Giuntella, O., McManus, S., Mujcic, R., Oswald, A.J., Powdthavee, N., and Tohamy, A. (2022). The midlife crisis. CAGE Working Paper (No. 641).