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Question Your World: What Causes a Mid-life Crisis?

So, what causes the mid-life crisis? For a long time it was believed that stress from responsibility played a heavy hand in the ushering in of the ‘mid-life crisis.’ The idea of mortgages, careers, bills, and various other social circumstances sure can be a heavy load for an individual to juggle. However, recent studies indicate that this is perhaps not based around responsibilities as much as it is on our old friend, evolutionLearn more in this week’s Question Your World Radio report by the Science Museum of Virginia. 

Human beings from all walks of life have been the subjects of a 20 year long mental health survey. For some reason, people all across the board seem to follow a similar pattern, mental well-being is very high in youth and in old age, then suddenly there is a significantly lower sense of happiness in mid-life. Often times we associate bills, careers, children, and various other social constructs as the reason for a crisis to pop up in mid-life. However, in another study, a remarkable bit of data was collected from some of our closest relatives, apes.

Over 500 orangutans and chimpanzees living in about 60 zoos across the world were studied and guess what? A very similar U-shaped pattern was noticed in the mental well-being of apes! Our primate relatives tend to live about 50 years, and sure enough right in the middle of that lifespan there is a noticeable drop in mental well-being. Now, the last time we checked, apes don’t have to worry about mortgages and careers as much as we do. So, why the dip? 

There really isn’t a straight answer just yet. Some guesses are being made, but no definite conclusions for now. Studying this new information could yield some pretty amazing results. One guess is that this is an evolutionary byproduct in our brains. We (and our not-too-distant relatives) perhaps undergo a physical or chemical change in that time period of our lives. The researchers involved in this study are going to have to dig deeper to see what else can be discovered. A potential result would be to understand what causes this and see if there is a way of navigating around the middle bummer years. 

A better understanding of this behavior in apes could help shed some light on why some primates buy expensive sports cars while others go bananas while hanging out at hip and trendy monkey bars!

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Article by Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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