Memo to Men: Assess Thyself!

It may seem like a cliché, but for many middle-aged men there is something about an
advancing calendar that leads to self-appraisal. And what should top the midlife male
checklist? Getting a handle on health, both physical and emotional.

By Lisa James

June, 2006

You should feel like you have the world on a string at this point...and you know it. At work you’re the go-to guy, the one they call when the young pups are in over their heads. At home there isn’t a handyman project you can’t handle (okay, so you can’t get everything done in a single weekend like you used to), and you are right there when your sweetie gives you that let’s-turn-in-early smile (after shutting off the tube and nudging you awake). You’re not constantly tripping over toys anymore, even if you can’t keep track of your daughter’s—or son’s—hair color on any given day. You’ve got a few bucks in the bank and a (nearly) new ride in the garage.

And yet...You always heard that old line about life being what happens while you’re busy making plans; now you are starting to understand what that means from the inside. You used to be totally into whatever you were doing; now you feel half-asleep most of the time. You once enjoyed the ladies’ appreciative looks when you hit the dance floor in your size-32 button-flys; now you’ve taken to wearing sweatpants that are, ah, comfortably roomy.

Face it, dude. You got middle-aged.

Don’t laugh, but this could actually be the best thing that’s ever happened to you. For starters it means you’re still upright and breathing, which is more than a lot of guys your age could say several generations ago. What’s more, finding a way out of your rut can lead you up mountains of achievement you didn’t even know existed. “The first half of our adult life is all about establishing ourselves,” says life coach Noel McNaughton of Raven’s Eye Consulting in Edmonton, Alberta. “The second adulthood is where we do our work...the soul work that eventually turns outward and sees us offering our gifts to the world.”

That’s not to say there aren’t perils at midlife. “The evidence is that while men are living longer they are not necessarily living better,” notes C. Peter Bankart, PhD, professor of psychology at Wabash College in Indiana and author of Freeing the Angry Mind (New Harbinger). “Most indicators of distress in men’s lives—rates of depression, substance abuse, hypertension, sexual dysfunction, relationship conflict and suicide—are higher than they were a generation ago.”

Middle age can be a stressful time for both genders. But while women are given to leaning on each other for support, men “are likely to use their social networks as gauges of how well or badly off they are than the other guys in their circle,” Bankart says. “The result of this continuous social comparison process is that men are pretty unlikely to share their real issues with other men for fear of being perceived as more messed up or weaker than other men.”

Giving Pause

Another similarity between the sexes at midlife lies in the experience of hormonal change. But signs of the male parallel to menopause, sometimes called andropause, are generally a lot more subtle.
Just as a women’s estrogen levels drop as she ages, so do a man’s levels of sex hormones. “If this were an all-or-nothing proposition as it is with women in menopause, perhaps society would have found ways to celebrate men’s ‘transition’ to a new status as an elder,” says Bankart. “But the fact is that between ages 20 and 80 men average only a 35% decrease in their testosterone.”

That reduction doesn’t mean the end to a man’s fertility; men can continue to father children well into old age. But low testosterone can cause an increase in body fat and declines in bone mass, muscle mass and strength, as well as sex drive and potency, which “may have significant cumulative effects on a man’s self-confidence and self-esteem,” Bankart says. Andropause also helps explain the presence of irritable male syndrome, the persistent grouchiness that leads loved ones to beat a hasty retreat from the den (“don’t bother Daddy right now”).

Pinning down andropause can be tricky; according to a Harris Interactive survey, 95% of the men who experienced two or more signs of low testosterone said their doctors never mentioned it as a possible cause. Fortunately, there are “many natural androgenic (hormone-boosting) supplements and vitamins,” says herbalist and psychotherapist Stephen Harrod Buhner, author of Vital Man (Avery). He suggests DHEA, ginseng (long revered in Asia as a male vitality herb), nettle root, pine pollen and zinc, along with a diet rich in corn, oatmeal and pine nuts.

Bettering Your Body

Now more than ever you have to pay attention to what you eat and how much you exercise—your changing body can’t burn off dietary excess like it used to. Yes, you’ve given yourself the “I’ll get in shape someday” speech before. Well guess what—someday is here, especially if you got that frowny look from your health practitioner the last time you went for bloodwork. (You are getting regular checks for blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and liver enzymes, right?)

This time, come up with a personalized plan. What exactly do you want to achieve: Get your blood pressure down without drugs? Reduce your body fat by 15%? Drop three pants sizes? Write it down.
Take note of exactly which foods will be relegated to treat status and which ones will move into the regular rotation. “To keep your weight in control forever, you should find healthy high-protein foods that you like and base your diet around them,” advises Gregory Joujon-Roche, founder of Holistic Fitness and author of One Body, One Life (Dutton). “Protein is important not only because it provides energy, but also because it is the only substance that rebuilds the body.” (Goodbye chicken-fried steak, hello salmon steak.) The carbohydrates you do consume should be of the vegetable—preferably green—variety with whole grains thrown in, not the donuts and French fries kind.

Joujon-Roche recommends detoxification to help your body get out from under all the metabolic junk that piles up; he suggests drinking more pure water and taking deep, calm breaths. Your health food store carries a number of fiber-based systems that can help jump-start a detox program.

Finding a fitness plan is just as important as cleaning up your diet. Exercise not only burns calories but also boosts mood, regulates blood sugar and improves digestion. Again, write down your goals and how you plan to get there: aerobic exercises such as running or spinning, and resistance work such as free weights or machines. Don’t be afraid to think outside the gym box, either. For example, “dancing is a great way to exercise, and it’s fun besides,” says Noel McNaughton. “Any kind of dancing will do.”

“You cannot achieve peak fitness without taking supplements,” advises Joujon-Roche. Start with a good multivitamin tailored to a man’s special needs—make sure it includes such heart-smart nutrients as magnesium, folic acid and niacin. Vitamins C and E provide a strong defense against cell-damaging free radicals, and Joujon-Roche recommends combining them with alpha lipoic acid and green tea polyphenols, two other strong antioxidants. Glucosamine and chondroitin have helped ease creaky joints, especially bum knees, for many a man. And omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to aid both the heart and the brain.

Playing Mind Games

Speaking of the brain...how’s yours lately? One possible reason for the link between increasing age and decreasing cognition is the loss of sex hormones, especially testosterone.

How convenient, then, that the same healthy eating and exercise practices you’ve adopted for your body’s sake can also aid your mind. Since the brain contains a high percentage of fat, it’s not surprising to learn that fat-based vitamin E helps protect against mental degradation caused by free-radical damage. In fact, a study published in the journal Archives of Neurology found that people who consumed the most E showed 36% less mental decline than folks who got the smallest amount. The B-complex is also crucial to optimal mental functioning, especially B-6, B-12 and folic acid.

Scientists suspect that homocysteine, a protein byproduct associated with heart attacks and strokes, plays a key role in the loss of cognitive function, and those three Bs help control homocysteine.

Hormones play a role in mood as well as mentality, and the sluggishness that can creep up on a guy is often a sign of low-level depression. “When I turned 50, I went into a mild depression for several years,” McNaughton says. “There was quite a bit of stress in my life at the time, and I thought I was just ‘feeling a bit of stress.’” Part of the problem is that while women show “classic” signs of depression—sadness, apathy, withdrawal—a man is more likely to respond with outbursts of anger and frustration. Exercise definitely helps. You can also try St. John’s wort, an herb with antidepressant properties. (Talk to your health practitioner first if you are on any prescription medications).

Working through a midlife crisis is well worth the effort; in Bankart’s words, “There is no greater challenge nor any greater reward than forgiving your parents, declaring your constant partnership with the person who shares your bed and loving your kids as if your life depends on it.” Being healthy in body and mind makes that lifework a whole lot easier.

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