I keep seeing someone’s old lady hands sticking out of my sleeves. There I am, just going about my work, and Bam! Old lady hands typing. Reaching for my dishes and Kapow! Old lady hands cooking. These hands are quite confusing, with their veins and sunspots and loose skin. What in the actual heck? Whose grandma is wearing my jewelry?
I turned 40 this year.
Forty! Which is so weird because I’ve always been young. I’ve been young my whole life, as a matter of fact. No matter how I dissect this, I’ve aged out of the “young” category and graduated to the “middle” group. My brain feels confused because I was just in college a minute ago. But much like Shakira: These hands don’t lie. And they’re not the only harbingers of change.
Through extremely scientific research like looking in a mirror and talking to my friends over wine, I’ve come up with a few telltale signs you’ve entered your forties—and no, not all of them are bad news.
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You can no longer quit eating bread for a day and lose six pounds
Once upon a time, I could make some minor adjustment, maybe go for a jog, and my too-snug jeans would fit by Tuesday. Apparently, a body gets over this by 40. It just wants to be fat and happy.
After you turn 40, you can eat 400 calories a day for six weeks and your body will release three pounds. The next day you eat half a tortilla and gain 17. Your body isn’t interested in your diet or those jeans. It wants yoga pants and your husband’s stretched out T-shirts, and it will have them.
I should’ve enjoyed my young body more. I would have worn my bikini to the grocery store had I known my days with those smooth thighs were numbered.
But you finally get a decent handle on who you are
Once you turn 40, you shed the skin of the existential dread. You know what you are good at, what you love, what you value, and how you want to live, and you don’t worry about anything else.
These questions used to keep me up at night. I once worried endlessly about purpose and trajectory, identity and worth, but 40 brought me security I couldn’t imagine. I know what I am good at now and I do it. I’m not apologetic and uncertain and aw-shucks about running my race. I no longer tiptoe through my own life, doubting my gifts and my place, too scared to go for it, seize it, pray for it, dream it. When you’re 40, you no longer wait for permission to live. As Maya Angelou said, “Life loves the liver of it.”
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Something weird happens to your brain
This brain has served you well for so long, but it starts punking you when you turn 40. You can’t remember directions. You forget why you walked into a room. And for the life of you, you can’t recall your third kid’s name (“Take out the trash…Um, you!”). You will talk on your cell phone while looking around your house for your cell phone. This is unfortunate because about this time you go back to middle and high school with your spawn. You are expected to help with algebra and chemistry and the remembering of All The Things, but your brain resembles the bottom of your purse: lost pen caps and congealed, undefined filth. It will take a nap while those children work their own stuff out. Your brain already completed 11th grade. It has done its time.
But you also develop resiliency
I used to desperately need approval. Criticism crushed me. Conflict paralyzed me. Consequently, I took the safest path through every scenario to avoid reproach. As an approval addict, the younger me would have been shocked to find that once I hit 40, I would quit caring so much what others think of me, my parenting, my marriage, my career, my politics, my house, my hair, my church, my dog, my new red front door, my comfortable flats, my stretchy pants, my daughter’s hair, my son’s weird interest in vintage ska, my new resolve to go vegan, my consistent purchase of Lunchables, my decision to work, my decision to quit, and so on.
If people don’t like it, well, whatever. It’s not that you become set in your ways. Differing opinions just stop shaking every decision. And critical words won’t send you to bed. You develop chops.
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Your skin… changes
When you see a picture of yourself, this is the thought process: “That was terrible lighting, and also the angle is tragic. Plus the shadows made my neck look weird, and do my friends not know how to use Instagram filters?!”
Sometimes I baby-talk parts of my body into resisting gravity’s charms: “Come on, shins. I’m counting on you. You’ve always been good to me. You don’t want to be like Neck and Eyelids and Chest, those loose floozies. Hang in there, baby, and you’ll be the last part of me to see the light of day.”
But you also learn what’s important
These kids, this husband, this little life I’ve built, that’s what matters.
After 40, you are slower to tell everyone how wrong they are, and quicker to gather your folks and take deep breaths of gratitude. This is your place. These are your people. This is your beautiful, precious life. Probably about halfway through your time here on earth, you lay down angst and pick up contentment.
Annie Dillard was right: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” You realize insecurity, striving, jealousy, and living in comparison will eventually define your entire life, and that is not the legacy you want. You decide your days should contain laughter and grace, strength and security.
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So sure, our bodies and minds get whack, but we wouldn’t return to our twenties for all the unwrinkled skin on earth. At our age, we love better, stand taller, laugh louder. Real life has tempered our arrogance and fear, and this is the best version of us yet.
But damnit, I wish I had worn more sunscreen in my 20s.
Your face is a work of art.
Instead of cursing the forces of gravity, you can now appreciate that the crow’s feet, marionette lines, sun spots, freckles, and even acne scars you see in the mirror are proof that you’ve lived. You’ve smiled and laughed. You’ve winked and blinked and blown kisses, widened your eyes in surprise and cried tears of joy. This face has seen you through all the experiences of your life—good, bad, and it’s complicated—and that richness is beauty. It’s wisdom. It’s personality. It’s the face your children and your partner and your girlfriends have come to know and love.
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4. You can let people help you.
My kids want to program my phone—great! I love having Siri be an Australian dude. A teenager wants to carry groceries to my car—you bet! My 40s have sparked an altruistic impulse in the people around me that in my 20s and 30s I might have resented, because I was too busy proving that I was strong, capable, and self-reliant. Now that I’ve hefted suitcases, sofas, and boxes of books (remember books?) from dorms to apartments to houses, and hurt my back doing…nothing, I don’t even know what—I’m happy to have a helper. A hero, even. Once you’re in your 40s, help doesn’t mean you’re weak; it just means you don’t have to do everything yourself.
You can finally relax.
By your 40s, most of the tumultuous, world-rocking changes are behind you. On one hand this means you’ll probably never become president, an astronaut, or an Olympic downhill skier. But you’re good at what you do. And you know who you are. And the rest doesn’t matter so much. I sing in a rock band. I bake amazing blondies. I throw a kick-ass fundraiser that raises beaucoup bucks. I also have insanely frizzy hair, I’m horrible at math (see above), and I’ve given up on trying to enjoy classical music concerts (sorry, Dad). But I’m good at what I do. I know who I am, and the rest doesn’t matter so much.
A new study came out today showing that the mid-life crisis is a myth; that the trajectory of happiness and contentment is a straight line going up. I may not remember why I walked into the kitchen, but my 11-year-old just texted, “Love you more than anything, Mommy,” with hearts and cookie emojiis. So turning 40—it’s all good. I can’t wait to see what my 50s will bring.
Questions to Ask Your Health Care Professional
You’re likely to have new concerns and questions about your health now, particularly about the menopause transition. You should feel comfortable discussing your concerns with your health care professional—no question is too small or insignificant. Keep your questions in a small notebook that fits easily into your purse and take it to your medical appointments. Here are a few questions you might consider asking:
- How can I improve my diet and/or exercise program to have a healthier lifestyle in my 40s? Ask for details about vitamins you need, supplements you should be taking, and ingredients you should avoid.
- When should I have regular checkups and which screening tests should I have and when?
- How do I prepare for a screening mammogram? What can I expect during the screening?
- Should I take hormone therapy for menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes and irritability? What other treatments are available?
- Am I at risk for osteoporosis? How much calcium and vitamin D should I get each day?
- Should I change my skin care routine to help reduce signs of aging? Are there treatments to remove “age spots”?
- Should I continue using the same contraceptive method in my 40s? What are the odds of pregnancy now that I’m close to menopause?
- Is depression a normal part of aging? What treatments are available?
- Will insurance pay for the screening tests I need in my 40s?
- Whom should I call to find out test results (such as a Pap test or mammogram) and when? (Remember: Always ask for and get a complete report on any medical tests you have. Don’t fall into the “No news is good news” trap. Medical reports can be misplaced or not reported. Be sure to follow up.)
- Preventive Health Screenings You Need
- Continue the positive health habits you have already established, including regular visits to your health care professional for preventive health screenings. If you are at high risk or have a family history of health problems, or you have serious medical conditions, you’ll need additional screenings and checkups beyond the basic recommendations listed here:
- Blood pressure test for hypertension: Have your blood pressure taken at least every two years; more often if it is at or above 120/80.
- Bone mineral density exam/bone mass measurement: Get screened at age 40 only if you are at increased risk for osteoporosis or low bone density because of using certain medications; have a disease or condition known to be associated with bone loss; or if you have recently broken a bone under certain circumstances.
- Cholesterol: Have your blood cholesterol tested every five years or more frequently if you have risk factors for heart disease.
- Clinical breast exam: Starting at age 40, you should have this exam every year. Your doctor or other health care professional will examine your breasts for any abnormalities. This exam often is part of the annual gynecologic examination. Many health care professionals also suggest doing a breast self-examination each month. However, research has shown that BSE plays a small role in finding breast cancer compared with finding a breast lump by chance or simply knowing what is normal. If you choose to perform a monthly BSE, ask your health care professional to show you how to perform one.
- Dental exam: Visit the dentist regularly. Checkups can detect early signs of oral health problems and bone loss. Professional tooth cleaning is also important for preventing oral problems and is usually done every 6 to 12 months.
- Diabetes blood glucose (sugar) test: You should be screened every three years starting at age 45; more often or earlier if you’re overweight or have other risks for diabetes. Ask your health care professional whether he or she recommends a blood glucose test for you.
- Eye exam: The American Academy of Opthalmology now recommends that starting at age 40, adults with no risk factors or signs of eye disease get a baseline eye screening. Then based on the results of that initial screening, an ophthalmologist will prescribe the necessary follow-up exams. For people of any age with symptoms of eye disease or risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or family history of eye problems, the academy recommends they see an ophthalmologist to determine how often they should have their eyes examined.
- Mammography: Beginning at age 40, you should be screened for breast cancer with mammography every one to two years. Guidelines on breast cancer screening vary, so talk to your health care professional about what’s right for you.
- Pap test and pelvic exam: Get a Pap test every three years or both a Pap test and an HPV test every five years (you can get both tests at the same time). The Pap test screens for abnormalities that could indicate pre- or early cervical cancer. Exception: If you have risk factors such as previous abnormal screening results, multiple sex partners, a weakened immune system, a history of DES exposure in utero or HIV infection, you should have a Pap test every year. Talk to your health care professional about what’s right for you.
- Remember: Don’t confuse your Pap test with a gynecologic examination. The American Academy of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends a gynecologic examination, including a pelvic exam, annually.
- Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs): If you have a history of chlamydia or other STDs or you or your partner have had multiple sex partners, ask your health care professional about whether you need to be screened for STDs, including gonorrhea and HIV.
- Skin exam for skin cancer: Examine your skin once a month for changes, such as moles that change color, shape or size. If you have risk factors for skin cancer, you may need periodic skin exams by a dermatologist or other health care professional. Talk to your doctor about what’s right for you.
- Thyroid test (TSH): Recommendations vary. The American Thyroid Association recommends having a TSH screening test at age 35 and then once every five years. The American Academy of Family Physicians does not recommend screening patients before age 60. And, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force states that there’s not enough evidence to recommend for or against thyroid screening in adults. Ask your health care professional for guidance.
- Weight: Obesity screening is now considered a preventive checkup. Ask your health care professional for more information on healthy weight guidelines or weight-management strategies.
- Hepatitis A: This vaccine is recommended for adults who live, work or travel in areas where hepatitis A is endemic and periodic outbreaks occur, or users of injection or street drugs, military personnel, institutionalized persons and those working in those institutions.
- Hepatitis B: All pregnant women should be screened for hepatitis B at their first prenatal visit. The Hepatitis B vaccine is recommended for all children and adolescents not previously immunized and for all adults at high risk for infection; high risk individuals include persons who are injection drug users and their sexual partners; anyone with a history of multiple sexual partners in the previous six months or who has recently acquired a sexually transmitted disease; recipients of certain drug products; individuals with a health-related job with frequent exposure to blood or blood products; and travelers to countries where hepatitis B virus (HBV) is of high concern.
- Influenza (flu): You need a dose every fall (or winter) to protect you and those around you from the flu.
- Pneumococcal: You need one to two doses if you smoke or if you have certain chronic medical conditions.
- Tetanus: You should receive tetanus booster shots every 10 years.