Middle aged people the 'pinnacle of evolution'
Middle aged people are at the peak of the evolutionary scale because they are perfectly adapted to serve the needs of family and society, a Cambridge University academic has claimed.
Many middle aged women lament the loss of their youthful figure as fat deposits leave the breasts, hips and thighs and gather in larger quantities around the midriff Photo: ALAMY
By Nick Collins, Science Correspondent
6:40AM GMT 08 Mar 2012
People in their forties and fifties might mourn their changing figure or the passing of childbearing age, but these changes are key to the success of the human species, Dr David Bainbridge said.
Far from being over the hill, middle-aged people are arguably the "pinnacle of evolution" because they are primed to play a vital role in society which could not be filled by younger adults, he added.
While certain physical attributes such as skin suppleness and short-range eyesight deteriorate noticeably in the fifth and sixth decades of life, more important aspects such as brain power remain virtually undiminished.
Humans are almost unique among animals in that women lose the ability to have children roughly half way through their lives, with at least two decades of healthy life remaining beyond childbearing age. By remaining faithful, men effectively give up the ability to have children also.
But we are such a complicated species that adults are required to do much more than simply produce and rear offspring, Dr Bainbridge said.
Writing in the New Scientist magazine he explained: "Middle age is a controlled and preprogrammed process not of decline but of development.
"The multiple roles of middle-aged people in human societies are so complex and intertwined, it could be argued that they are the most impressive living things yet produced by natural selection."
Many middle aged women lament the loss of their youthful figure as fat deposits leave the breasts, hips and thighs and gather in larger quantities around the midriff.
But this happens because the body is no longer required to produce children and storing fat centrally makes it easier to carry around.
In evolutionary terms, having more fat would also have allowed out ancestors to use it for sustenance in hard times, leaving more food for younger generations to survive on.
Contrary to popular belief many of our prehistoric ancestors lived beyond 40, and they developed over thousands of years into skilled and experienced "super-providers", Dr Bainbridge said.
Throughout our evolution middle aged people have passed on their expertise in vital crafts and hunting and gathering techniques to younger generations, along with their society's cultures and traditions.
This is still true in certain indigenous societies, while in the western world middle-aged people dominate senior positions in offices, on building sites and at sports clubs.
Some mental abilities, such as reaction speeds, decline in middle age but we compensate by using our brains differently to improve skills like long-term planning and managing projects.
Dr Bainbridge said: "Each of us depends on culture to survive, and the main route by which culture is transmitted is by middle-aged people telling children and young adults what to do.
"Middle-aged people can do more, earn more and, in short, they run the world," he said.