Men's studies

Healthy Optimists

Psychologist Ulrike Ehlert is looking into what keeps men over 40 healthy, fit, and satisfied. What’s important, she’s found, is an optimistic outlook on life and regular physical exercise.

Roger Nickl

Optimists are better equipped in the tug-of-war of getting older. (Image: Jos Schmid)

Men over 40 are supposed to be in the best years of their life. There might be something to that, but as time takes its toll on a man’s body and soul, the prospects for the second half of his life aren’t always as rosy as the dictum would suggest. At this stage of life there’s an increased risk of physical and mental illness. And although men, unlike women, don’t go through menopause, levels of the sex hormone testosterone decline steadily from age 40 – which for some men can erode their feeling of self-worth. “To a certain extent men define themselves in terms of their testosterone levels,” explains Ulrike Ehlert. “They assume that there’s a direct link with their sexual potency.”

In their project “Männer 40+,” the clinical psychologist and her team are trying to find out what health and social challenges men in their prime have to face, and what part the development of their hormones play in all this. Above all they want to work out why some men aged between 40 and 75 retain their health and vitality even as they get older, while others don’t. “Healthy aging starts at the very latest at 40,” says Ehlert. If you want to stay fit and healthy into old age you should start to take care of yourself in good time, as the stage is set already in middle age.

Hormonal fountain of youth

To unravel the secret of healthy aging, the clinical psychologists at UZH have investigated around 300 healthy males aged between 40 and 75 in the course of various studies. “There’s no point only focusing on illness,” says Ehlert. “We can only learn from those who stay healthy.” For example the researchers have looked into how levels of the hormones testosterone and DHEA develop in men. DHEA is supposed to be the hormonal fountain of youth, and is partially responsible for youthful looks and mental flexibility. As their studies are now showing, levels of testosterone and DHEA might decline with increasing age, but there are large variations between the men they’ve been investigating. “Not all men are equal,” explains Ulrike Ehlert. “There are also men who still have high levels of these healthy hormones in their old age.” This prompted the researchers to look into what makes these men special. They found out, for example, that regular training in Asian martial arts and concentration techniques such as tai chi, qigong and kung fu have a positive influence on hormone levels.

Men who do tai chi, qigong or kung fu at least four times a week were much fitter than average within the group studied. They were better tempered and more balanced. For Ulrike Ehlert it’s clear why this is so: “When you train you deliberately calm down, you force yourself to no longer think, and concentrate on your body and your breathing. That reduces the production of stress hormones.” Doing sports or making music regularly has a similarly positive mental and physical effect, keeping us healthy, fit, and vital for longer.

A bit more on the side

Sometimes, though, there’s a major decline in men’s testosterone levels as they get older. In such cases, debilitating potency problems and erectile dysfunction can result. But Ulrike Ehlert is convinced that therapy to replace the missing testosterone doesn’t always make sense. Impotence doesn’t always have only to do with a lack of hormones – relationship problems can also be responsible. “For good sex the quality of the relationship has to be right,” says the psychologist. “Maintaining the quality of a relationship over the 30 or more years older couples have often been together is, of course, a big challenge.”

Optimists are better equipped in the tug-of-war of getting older. Maybe it should come as no surprise that one third of the men over 40 investigated by the researchers admitted to infidelity. “Perhaps these men want to find out if whether they’ll have the same problems with other women as well, and are trying to raise their self-esteem,” says Ehlert. But it’s not just the number of extramarital flings that increases among men in their prime. Divorce rates for couples around 50 have also rocketed in recent decades. “We don’t yet know whether partners are actually more satisfied with their lives after a separation,” explains Ehlert. “That’s something for future research to analyze more closely.”

Glass half full

Men over 40 don’t just have to increasingly contend with physical ailments. As major Swiss studies show, the risk of depression also rises. In depression the body produces excess amounts of the stress hormone cortisol. Many depressed men, however, don’t only suffer mentally and emotionally. They’re increasingly prone to cardiovascular disease and the risk of heart attack. The question arises as to how they can protect themselves from depression and other mental problems.

Ulrike Ehlert’s research has yielded a clear answer: optimists are more likely to stay emotionally healthy. “Optimists have a positive attitude to themselves and the world,” she explains. They see life as benevolent and trust that it will go on even if things occasionally go wrong. This means they’re better able to deal with stressful situations and feel less under pressure. People suffering from depression, by contrast, lack this positive attitude. This is something Ulrike Ehlert, who has often dealt with depressed and anxious patients, has seen repeatedly. In such cases she tries to put herself in the other person’s shoes. “I want to get an idea of what it means if you always see the glass as half empty rather than half full, if you weigh up every decision five times over and build up cognitive dissonance instead of simply saying ‘no problem.’” This has helped her understand depressed people better as a psychologist. Even though it’s difficult to change such negative basic attitudes, Ulrike Ehlert believes that an optimistic outlook can be trained to some extent. While not everyone’s a born optimist, she believes that reflecting on your own attitudes and noticing where you’re getting in your own way are things you can practice, even in old age, to make your life easier.

As well as finding life easier, men who are emotionally and mentally healthy also look better. This is something that struck Emilou Noser, one of Ehlert’s colleagues, during an experiment. First she measured pictures of men, and then she had women rate the attractiveness of the portraits and say how old they thought the men were. It emerged that the men who felt mentally healthy also made a younger and more attractive impression on the women.

Live better

Their studies are enabling the psychologists led by Ulrike Ehlert to put the puzzle together piece by piece, and in time they hope to have a comprehensive picture of what keeps men between 40 and 75 fit and healthy. Ulrike hopes this knowledge could someday flow into a healthy aging program at UZH. “The goal would be to give people individual recommendations on how to live a good life as they get older, and how to tackle their fears and problems,” she explains. “It’s about optimizing resources rather than fixing weaknesses.”

To gain even more know-how, the psychologists want to look at the healthy men they have been investigating in a few years’ time to see how stable their development has been. In the meantime, however, they plan to embark on a second major project: from this fall they’ll be devoting themselves to women’s health 40+ in a project analogous to their work with men. This way it will eventually be possible to compare how small differences affect the health and satisfaction of men and women in the best years of their life.

Roger Nickl is the editor of UZH Magazine.

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