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Age of transformation: the startling revelation about turning 50

Reaching the half-century can usher change into one’s life - and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, discovers Shane Hegarty

I turn 50 in a few months’ time and Instagram’s algorithm has been taunting me about it. I’m bombarded with ads for free hearing aids and dad-exercise regimes I can do from the comfort of my chair.

It pushes videos for flattering T-shirts that won’t plunge straight down from the beer belly like the hem of a tablecloth.

This is you now, it is saying. You are heading into the open plains of life beyond 50, when several decades get lumped in together. Nobody in their right mind would market simultaneously to a 40-year-old and a toddler but see that ad for vitamin supplements? Well, that deeply tanned, deeply smug, lusciously white-haired couple frolicking barefoot in sparkling sands represent you from 50 until who knows when.

I recently became aware of, and even a little tempted by, an expo called the 50 Plus Show (“For People Who Don’t Act Their Age”) that pops up around the country each year and takes place in the RDS, Dublin, on March 14th and 15th. The “Plus” is key. This new age bracket is an open-ended one. You step in but eventually just fall out somewhere on the far side. Mere survival is a goal. I actually hear the term “sniper alley” used to describe the increased hazards of this decade. (To be clear, that comes from friends and not the 50 Plus Show’s marketing material).


I have been turning 50 for longer than expected. A few years ago, peers started talking about the milestone, plans were made to mark the occasion, and the run of birthday parties began. There was a noticeable uptick in conversations on themes such as retirement, prostate exams, medicinal regimes and the acceptable number of naps a person can take during any given day.

I know many who have used the birthday as an excuse for bucket-list trips. A group of us – lifelong friends – saved over several years for a big trip away and ended up on a beach in Mauritius for a week late last year, grateful to be well and able to do such a thing. Sitting at a swim-up bar by the Indian Ocean drinking a piña colada hardly elicits sympathy for any struggle to deal with this milestone.

Still, I’m perturbed by how the imminent birthday occasionally wakes me at 3am so I can dwell on what’s next in my life and work, and will my kids be okay and where is my pension at and where has the time gone and how much of it has been wasted and what do I need to do before it’s all too late. And so on until the mind’s concerns are quickly overpowered by those of the bladder, which was once a reliable member of the team but is now capricious, impatient and given to sudden intrusions during both a fun night out and the deepest of existential crises.

What is it about 50? Why is it the age at which we’re generally considered to be, if not quite riding into the sunset, then at least turning the horse westward? I ask Professor Rose Anne Kenny, who is founding principal investigator of Tilda, Ireland’s primary longitudinal study on the health, wealth and quality of life of the over-50s.

“Fifty is the age in which most of us experience social and household transition,” Kenny says. “Children are older so that dynamic within a family is changing. Some people are thinking of retiring at 60 or 65, or some who’ve been in the same job for 20 or 30 years are maybe looking at that last phase of working life and thinking ‘okay, I want to do something different here’.

“Healthwise a lot of the early indicators of future health are becoming apparent at 50 and above. Like blood pressure starting to rise, like obesity setting in, diabetes becomes higher and so on.”

Hold on, this isn’t cheering me up at all. But wait, the research has thrown up something genuinely startling.

“After 50, one remarkable feature is that quality of life continues to get better,” says Prof Kenny. “Your happiness index improves up to, on average, age 78. It gradually declines after that but only reaches where it was at 50 when we are well into our 80s.”

Physical illness is the main determinant of any drop in quality of life, and Kenny is keen to reinforce how important it is to give yourself the best chance of staying healthy through exercise, diet and social activities.

“This business of ‘I’m too old for that’ or ‘it’s my age, I’ve got to stop it’, do the opposite of that,” she says. “Try to do a little bit more, not less. You can’t get away from how important diet is. The Mediterranean-plus diet has been shown to reduce or delay cognitive decline. We’re all very familiar with the Mediterranean diet, and the plus is seeds and nuts and berries. That diet has been very well substantiated as the best.”

“The third thing is to grow your friendships, grow your networks, grow your social activities, so that you are busy outside of work. That way you’re preparing for retirement, but also it’s very good for you physiologically because, by having lots of variety in your life, you slow down the ageing process. The converse is that if you don’t do that, it accelerates it. Those are things that make what my husband calls ‘the last lap’ the best lap.”

“We find that people who have a positive attitude towards their own ageing, and see themselves as being younger than the number of candles on the birthday cake, actually age more slowly.”

As it happens, I bump into a friend – and newly minted half-centurion – Sinéad Crowley and find that she embodies much of what Kenny talks about. An author and former RTÉ journalist, her year was marked by a change of job and a great trip to Vegas to see U2.

“Having the gig to look forward to sweetened the blow,” she says. “I would like to ask U2 to have a gig every year for me, thank you very much.”

Crowley found turning 50 easier than her 40th. “At 40 I had a one-year-old and four-year-old so was completely in the trenches and barely made it out for dinner, so that wasn’t a celebration to keep going. While at 50, thank God everyone is here and healthy, and I’ve more of a chance to take stock.”

It coincided with a change of job, after 26 years, to a role at media regulator Coimisiún na Meán. “There’s something now-or-never about it, isn’t there?” she says. “I doubt if I’d make that change at 60 or even at 55. Forty-nine still felt like a young enough time to make a big life change.”

Relatively young in her group of friends, Crowley also had the long run-in. “By the time it’s my significant birthday I’ve been to everybody else’s. That kind of helps.”

We agree on the perhaps self-comforting refrain among our generation that we are not like the 50-year-olds of the past and that the expectations of ageing have changed.

We both do the park runs whenever we can and I measure myself against runners in their 60s and 70s, who often hare off at impressive pace, wearing singlets on wild days when the rest of us are buried under layers. I find their continued fitness encouraging and, frankly, consoling.

“The four of us who went on the holiday would all be going to the gym or going for a run,” says Crowley. “My mam and her friends were not going for 5k park runs when they were 49. It just wasn’t considered. Now it’s accepted. So even though there are aches and pains, I’m definitely fitter. In fact, I’m probably fitter than I was in my 30s in a way and that gives me confidence.”

And that’s the spirit to head into 50 with. Whatever Instagram insists about the hearing aids and dad-exercise routines, as I celebrate 50 I will endeavour to fall back on what Kenny says is clear in the research: “Life gets better.”

There’s no point in arguing with science.

I suddenly have an image of myself deeply tanned, deeply smug, lusciously grey and frolicking barefoot on a beach – although I am wearing a sensible coat and minding my step.

Sinéad Crowley’s next novel A Maid On 5th Avenue is published in September. Shane Hegarty is a children’s author whose latest picture book is ‘Dexter Lost His Boo-Woo’. The 50 Plus Show at the RDS in Dublin takes place on March 14th-15th.