I remember it like it was yesterday. I came into the office on a Monday morning with a new, shorter haircut. My intern, 20, commented on how great the cut was, and that it was “totally appropriate for a woman who is middle-aged.”
I was 37.
I told her I was far from middle age. But the truth was, it was just around the corner, and the disturbing signs that it was coming were all too apparent. I could accept it — or fight against it. I choose the latter.
While there is no formal definition of the term “middle age,” consensus is that it probably begins anywhere from age 40 and ends somewhere around 65 years old. For a woman, it’s the time period where you may be thinking more about menopause than babies. It’s the years where you hold onto every last drop of estrogen and non-gray hair. And if you’re like me, you keep your 18-year-old jeans in the closet as a motivating reminder of more youthful days.
None of us can avoid father time, but you sure can slow down his impact. Here’s how I’m trying to get my younger self to stick around a little longer.
I’m focusing more on the inside and less on the outside.
I noticed the changes on the outside first: the lines by my eyes, the forehead wrinkles and the loosening of skin everywhere. While looking good is important for many reasons, looking good inside should take center stage at this point.
Middle age is where bad choices and bad habits may start to catch up in the form of increased inflammation. You can’t see inflammation like you can a wrinkle on your face and perhaps that’s the deadliest thing about it. A 2019 study found that chronic inflammation in middle age was associated with an increased risk of problems with thinking and memory decades later. Another study, out of Johns Hopkins Medicine, found that inflammation in midlife often led to frailty later on. The keys to reducing inflammation involve regular exercise, a colorful diet, stress management and avoidance of smoking or excess drinking.
I’m considering sleep my fountain of youth.
Sleep has also been found to be a strong force against inflammation. But beyond the inflammatory benefits, sleep can also improve your skin and your weight. Chronic sleep loss can lead to alterations in hormones that may make you eat more — and hold onto every last extra pound. Lack of sleep can also lead to an acceleration of aging skin, an increased risk of diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other brain-related diseases.
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Middle age is the time to skip the late-night TV, reading and screen time to ensure a healthy 7-8 hours of sleep a night.
I’m using my diet to fight against aging skin.
Next to an obsessive sunscreen habit, a nutrient-dense diet (that embraces a heavy dose of antioxidants) can not only help to ward off disease, but it may allow my skin to hang onto a youthful glow. Multiple studies have connected a high content of fruits and vegetables to “glowing” skin. In fact, one study found that these foods gave more of a glow than the sun did.
Further, research from the American Academy of Dermatology found that in addition to fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean sources of protein helped in keeping the integrity of skin.
Water is also essential to keep skin hydrated. Therefore, while coffee and tea are antioxidant powerhouses, I do adhere to limited amounts of caffeine to maintain healthy hydration.
I skip snacks to ward off belly fat.
Belly fat happens at middle age for many reasons, but changes in hormones and muscle mass probably top the list. One way that I have tried to keep belly fat from becoming uncontrollable is to eat less and avoid high-carb foods in an effort to quiet insulin levels (a potential promoter of belly fat).
This often means fasting on some days of the week, and avoidance of eating between meals on others. We don’t need to eat around the clock and studies show that our bodies react better when we fuel less. And if you’re eating less — you better make it count by getting the best nutrients in when you do.
I drink less.
Right before middle age started to set in, I became a mother. I learned quickly that doing so automatically granted me membership into a secret mom’s club: the wine club. Indulgence in the club however often led to weight gain, sleep disturbances and overeating of unhealthy foods (like sugar, fried foods and white refined grains).
While I still go to the mom events, I limit my drinking as much as possible. Science is now questioning if drinking really has the benefits we all thought it did. Moderation is often recommended from public health agencies but the problem is, “moderate” is often a subjective term. A 5-ounce glass of wine, a 12-ounce beer or a 1.5-ounce shot is the daily limit for a woman. I suggest actually doing the measurement with your glasses at home to see what this really looks like.
It’s time to take middle age back; that means living better, and if you want, forgoing the short haircut.
Kristin Kirkpatrick is the lead dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Wellness & Preventive Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a best-selling author and an award winning dietitian.