Monday, April 25, 2011


I’ve often heard it said and sung
That life is sweetest when you’re young
And kids, sixteen to twenty-one
Think they're having all the fun
I disagree, I say it isn't so
And I'm one gal who ought to know
I started young and I'm still going strong
But I've learned as I've gone along

That life begins at forty
Yes, life begins at forty
And I've just begun to live all over again
Life begins at forty
And I'm just living all over again

Excerpt from Life Begins at 40, released in 1947, sung by Sophia Tucker.

The results from a recent (March 2011) British survey which concluded that women are “old” at 29 sent me on a path to find the lyrics of the song “Life Begins at 40” and the origin of the phrase. I found some interesting people and even more interesting quotes. I had to search far and wide to find the lyrics since I had never heard the song. Not surprising since the song was popular when my parents were children. Life Begins at 40 was a popular 1940s song, sung by Sophia Tucker who was born Sophia Kalish on January 13, 1884 in Russia but grew up in the USA. For several years Tucker played piano and sang burlesque and vaudeville tunes in blackface, performing African American songs. She hired some of the best African American singers of the time to give her lessons and hired African American composers to write songs for her act.

The title of the song supposedly came from the self-help book Life Begins at Forty published in 1932 by psychologist Walter Pitkin who reportedly wrote: “Life begins at forty. This is the revolutionary outcome of our New Era. Today it is half a truth. Tomorrow it will be an axiom.” Pitkin may have been the first person to write those famous words that are now being challenged by the results of the new British survey about when women become “old.” However, with further searching I found that someone else is credited with having the same idea since the 19th century. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788 - September 21, 1860) is credited with this quote: "The first forty years of life give us the text: the next thirty supply the commentary." That idea is very close to the whole thinking around “Life Begins at 40.” It is a bit surprising that Americans embraced Schopenhauer’s idea since he also is credited with the quote: “The fruits of Christianity were religious wars, butcheries, crusades, inquisitions, extermination of the natives of America and the introduction of African slaves in their place.”

Anyway, back to the idea, book and song of Life Begins At Forty which America embraced in the 1930s including a March 1935, Fox Film Corporation released movie Life Begins At Forty. When did all that change to women becoming old at 29? It was not a sudden change the signs have been there for a while, at least since the turn of this century. In an article published in the British newspaper The Telegraph on December 20, 2000 there was a hint that all was not well with the idea of life beginning at 40. The article informed that a study by Professor Keith Wesnes, from Cognitive Drug Research Ltd discovered that people aged between 40 and 50 were 15 per cent slower at completing simple computerised tasks than those in their twenties. Now as far as I am concerned this could very well have been because the 40 to 50 year old people the good professor studied had less familiarity with the computer than people in their 20s. However, this quote from the article caused me some alarm: “A study of 2,282 people aged 18 to 87 found that hitting 40 was synonymous with forgetfulness, lack of concentration and poor focus. While general intelligence appeared to remain stable over time, psychologists concluded that everyday mental skills, such as remembering a telephone number or a person's name, showed a marked decline from the age of 40 onwards.”

The cause for my alarm is the fact that all of us who were born in the 1950s (1950 - 1959) are now in our 50s. Does this mean that I have to write my phone number on my arm everyday before I leave home? Do I now need to carry labelled photographs of my relatives and friends in my wallet so I remember their names? However by the time I read through the article I was less alarmed because there is hope. The article ended with this glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel of despair into which I had stumbled: A recent study found that the memory of people aged between 40 and 65 improved by 7.5 per cent after taking supplements containing ginkgo and ginseng.

I was thinking that I had to go hunting for ginkgo and ginseng supplements to avoid the harm of inking my arm with telephone numbers daily and fetching around labeled photographs of my relatives and friends. Just then I came across another article published in the British newspaper The Telegraph on November 17, 2000 which really lifted my spirits and put all my anxieties about aging to rest. Professor Richard Scase of Kent University and Professor Jonathan Scales of Essex University co-authored the report Fit and Fifty based on their study of 10,000 adults and concluded that Britons in their 50s are enjoying the happiest times of their lives. Now I had to decide which report to believe.

My decision is to ignore all the reports including the one that concludes that women are old at 29. When I was 29 I was definitely not old, I thought I was invincible. When I was a teenager I did not read or hear that I was supposed to be rebellious so I was not. The popular culture of North America urges teenagers to be rebellious (or at least disrespectful) through the sit-coms, movies and other medium. In my youth there were no television programs that mis-educated us about how we should behave so we were individuals. In the same manner the various reports that attempt to mis-educate us on how we should feel about aging or anything else about our feelings probably provide a good income for some people. We as individuals with minds of our own should make decisions about our lives without depending on pop-culture to do so.

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