Q&A: Why 50 Is Not the New 30, and How to Make the Best of It

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Mirth and menopause may seem an unlikely mix, but in her new book, Between a Rock and a Hot Place: Why Fifty is Not the New Thirty, Hollywood screenwriter Tracey Jackson manages to deliver women’s health advice with an infectiously lighthearted outlook.

Jackson has written more than 15 feature films, most recently adapting 2009’s Confessions of a Shopaholic for Jerry Bruckheimer. We spoke about the new world of 50-something women.

Why did you want to write this book in a funny way?

I think humor is everything. It’s much easier to digest information that you don’t want to hear if I can make you laugh. If you laugh and say, ‘That’s me too’ when you read about the woman who put hair conditioner on her face instead of in her hair, [you are more open to hearing important health advice].

So why is 50 not the new 30?

I got so sick of everyone saying that [it was]. I thought this was one more big declaration of boomer denial. While things may not be falling apart, 50 is nothing like 30 — and if people start making decisions in life based on the idea that they had 40 kick-ass years ahead of them instead of 10 to 15, they’re going to make really bad decisions.

Nothing is the same. You wake up and go, ‘Oh is it just me? Why is this happening to me?’ I wanted to say, ‘Hey girls! There are 79 million boomers. You are not the only one going through it.’ I think it makes people feel a whole lot better.

But when I first said I was writing this book or told people about it, they’d go, ‘Heh heh heh,’ [nervously]. No one wanted to be the first to say it.

What are some of the most important differences?

At 30, you have chances for do overs. We’re a generation of do overs. If one thing doesn’t work, we do it again. But there are not as many do overs at 50. You have to be a little more [focused on your] intentions, they have to be more well thought out.

I call it the list of three. Not everything is going to happen to everybody, but for most people between 47 and 60, one of these three things will happen: [The first has to do with your job]. Everyone has experiences ranging from getting displaced or losing your job or being demoted.

The other thing is that this is the age when parents start to age. [For most people], that’s not happening at 30. One in eight people get Alzheimer’s. For many, one parent has died.

[The third thing is that] many women who have been full-time mothers get the biggest pink slip ever.

You’ve got a lot of thinking to do. People have their own health crises. Then there’s your love life — a lot of people were just hanging in there till the kids went away.

How is being over 50 different now, compared to the way it used to be?

In 1935, 3% of people were over 65. In 2035, [a quarter] of the population will be over 65. That’s when you look at social security and go ‘Holy s—.’

It’s an entirely new world for people this age. Women were supposed to be barefoot, pregnant and then dead. Unless you take care of your body, we still age like cavemen. Go to any third-world country and look at what 35 looks like without access to medicine and dentistry.

What should women facing 50 or who are in their 50s do to protect their health?

The number one most important thing you can do is to take care of yourself. Almost three-quarters of the country is overweight. There are 26 million diagnosed cases of diabetes and another 40 million or more are pre-diabetic.

Get your heart checked. People worry about cancer but heart disease is still the No. 1 killer.

If you’re a smoker, quit. If you’re overweight lose weight. It’s the only body you’ve got and [as you get older], it can’t handle excess weight, cigarettes, that much booze. Exercise is another big thing.

[World champion marathoner] Greta Waitz dropped dead at 57. [Yet, some people who smoke, drink and overeat live to 100.] There’s an amount of fate involved, but try to stack the cards in your favor. It’s about the quality of life you’re going to have: do you want to feel good and get out of bed clear-headed? It’s not just vanity.

I [also] think that there’s no question that once you’re 50, you’ve got to go get a colonoscopy. The statistics are staggering: if everyone over 50 got a colonoscopy every 5 years colon cancer could be reduced by 95%. No one wants to do it, [but you have to].

The research on the safety of hormone replacement therapy for menopausal symptoms has been maddening, swinging from one extreme to another. What did you choose to do?

For me, it was terrible, I have awful everything. I tried to go off it and got horrible headaches. I had really bad symptoms. I went on regular HRT and ultimately found my way to bioidenticals, and that worked for me.

But I don’t suggest [a specific treatment] for anybody. If you’re bothered, if you’re miserable, if your quality of life is suffering [because of menopause], go talk to someone. It’s really different for everybody.

How did you come to include recommendations about finances in a book that’s mostly about health and psychological concerns?

That happened in a very funny way. I now have a friend who is my name doppelganger on Gmail. She used to get a lot of my emails and so she knew who I was. I didn’t know anything about her. When I finished working on the book each day, I would send myself a copy of what I’d done. So one day, I sent the book to her by mistake.

She said,’ If you’re going to do this, you need a chapter on finances.’ I went, ‘Oh, my goodness, is she ever right.’ Sixty-six percent of women have bag-lady syndrome, [the fear of being old and poor on the street].

Many women do outlive their savings so it’s not too early to start this. It’s another big difference between 50 and 30. Now, having me tell what to do with your finances is like having Michael Vick tell you how to train your dog — you don’t want to do that [so I consulted with experts for that chapter].

What other types of planning are important?

You’ve got be your own fairy godmother. There’s no fairy godmother at this age. There’s nothing worse than being an old person with regrets. Now’s the time to do the stuff you’ve never done.

Start thinking about it: do you want to keep working? What makes you happy? Do you want to go sit in Florida in a rocking chair? If not, 50 is a good time to start [making other plans].

[Also, it’s important to remember] that you can keep your job at this age, but you may not get hired as easily if you lose it. Try to do what you always wanted to do because life is short and it’s shorter when you’re 50.

Stay relevant — that’s huge. Don’t say, ‘I’m too old to know what Twitter is. I feel irrelevant.’ You can be unbelievably relevant. Just don’t whine and say it’s too late.

See more of Healthland’s ‘Mind Reading’ series.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.