I would have put three stars, because I only “liked” this book, but I had to give a bonus to something so meticulously researched and deftly told. Then again, what else would you expect from an NPR reporter except exceptional journalism?
Haggerty is in her fifties, and has a lifelong dedication to education, intellectual development, and accomplishment. She combines research about what happens to the brain and body at middle age with personal stories collected from listeners who responded on her facebook page. I felt as though most of her interviewees were baby boomers, even though Gen Xers are now also middle aged.
The question Hagerty returns to again and again is “How do I slow or stop mental decline?” She relays interesting research into Alzheimer’s; apparently just having the physiological symptoms of Alzheimer’s doesn’t mean that person will have mental degeneration. A woman whose autopsy showed a brain that had the Swiss cheese degradation of Alzheimer’s was sharp and witty up until the day she died. (Spoiler: learning new things helps, but nothing beats aerobic exercise for slowing brain degeneration.) I don’t particularly like the idea of getting feeble minded in my dotage, but brain degeneration doesn’t make me as worried as the idea of losing vision and mobility, two things Hagerty doesn’t really touch on.
This book isn’t so much a “how to do midlife” for everyone as it is a “how Barbara Bradley Hagerty approaches midlife.” Her values are slightly different from mine. For example, Hagerty didn’t have children of her own, so she has nothing to add about how parenting changes a person in middle age. She talks about shifting careers, when women who stayed home or dialed back their careers to raise children would just be starting her career in midlife, not changing to a new one. Her obsession with education and accomplishment started to feel a lot like snobbery after a while. If she interviewed someone with a PhD, she mentioned the PhD. If someone went to an ivy league school (and most of the interviewees did) she mentioned it. I went to college. I did great at college, but to think I’d be identified by it decades later seems a little weird and off-putting, especially if I went to a (gasp!) affordable state school. It’s like Japanese television where they put everyone’s age up on the screen. True information, yes, but it seems an odd thing to share with everyone.
Most of her interviewees also have high powered, high profile, fiercely competitive careers, so I felt that weird disconnect like I do when I read medium articles about millennials who moan that they’re only making $55K right out of college and can’t afford the Brooklyn apartment they want. The problem is not that they’re poor, the problem is that they don’t have enough life experience to know what poverty really is. You can only feel sorry for baby boomers who were downgraded to working at Starbucks or Land’s End if you are completely blind to the fact that most Americans consider those pretty good jobs and would be glad to get them. And the fact that she doesn’t talk about parenting very much also makes it not as relevant to most people. It’s like a vegan cookbook; while it’s a valid choice, it’s missing what most people consider hugely crucial ingredients.
I’d suggest approaching this book not as an end-all-be-all description of an under-researched topic, but more as a memoir from a brilliant baby boomer journalist as she navigates the third trimester of life.