Why 50+ is the prime of every woman's life (yes, really!)

Why 50+ is the prime of every woman’s life (yes, really!) ‘Life’s too short to sweat a few extra pounds or a wrinkled neck’ says DR LOUANN BRIZENDINE as she explains how the female brain works

  • Dr Louann Brizendine explains the superpowers of post-menopausal women
  • UK-based neuroscientist reveals how the female brain works and changes
  • She says from birth, the female brain is a mean, lean, observing machine

Let me say now that I hate the M word. It is a fossil, created by male doctors who characterise it as a disease and a deficiency. 

I use the phrase ‘The Upgrade’ instead, and I call the years leading up to it ‘The Transition’. 

The Upgrade is the phase of life we emerge into when we exit the hormonal war zone, finally able to see who we are, what we want and how we want to live. And, as a leading neuropsychiatrist, I’m here to tell you it’s a glorious time full of freedom and discovery. Yes, really! 

Fifteen years ago I wrote a book called The Female Brain, which was widely considered to be ground-breaking. 

Hair & make-up: Desmond Grundy at Terri Manduca. Styling: Dinah van Tulleken. Model: Michele Ronson. Dr Louann Brizendine explains the superpowers of post-menopausal women

Based on three decades of research, it described the uniquely flexible structure of the female brain, which determines not only how women think and what they value, but how they communicate and who they love. I didn’t think I’d write another book — I got enough headlines with the first one — but as I entered the second half of life and started to feel the invisibility reserved uniquely for women of a certain age, something inside me rebelled. 

I could feel a new power, a new clarity, a laser-like sense of purpose emerging in this phase, and I knew it was time to explore the science behind what I was feeling. 

As a specialist on the impact of female hormones on the brain, and the founder of the Women’s Mood and Hormone Clinic at the University of California in San Francisco, I knew the post-menopause period was not a slow decline towards the end. Instead, women are looking at the most vital, confident and wise time of their lives. 

The medical profession views the ‘perimenopause’ and ‘menopause’ as a change in a woman’s reproductive status. But this is wrong — the impact is almost entirely neurological. Hot flushes, brain fog, anxiety and sleep disruption indicate glitches in the oestrogen-regulated nervous system. 

It is the brain that is most affected by these changes. 

During the reproductive phase of a woman’s life, hormones dominate decision-making and shape priorities to make sure we feel intimacy and connection with our partners and children. 

But then those waves of hormones stop. For the first time since they were girls, women are released from competing agendas — the deep yearning of who they really are versus the reality and behaviour driven by the fertility cycle. 

The Transition can last between two and 14 years. The Upgrade — or the post-menopausal period, to use another ghastly phrase — can last for 40 years or longer. 

So, where do you want to be as you enter this Upgrade? Do you crave a life that is filled with freedom, purpose and focus, unencumbered by the responsibilities of an earlier time? 

Understand how radically your brain changes in midlife, and there’s no reason why this can’t be the golden age of your life…

Dr Louise (pictured) explains how the female brain works and changes as we get older. She says that from birth, the female brain is a mean, lean, observing machine


After The Transition, women’s brains have less oestrogen, but a steadier supply of it. Part of what this means is that we lose our ability to multi-task. 

Neurology professor Adam ­Gazzaley has done seminal work on the over-60 female brain. What he discovered is that before the Mword, we could hold two things in mind, one in each hemisphere of the brain, and switch between the two channels by momentarily suppressing one and then switching back to the other. If you tried to hold a third thing, you would have to drop one of the other two. 

In The Upgrade, that all changes. Professor Gazzaley found that a second thought cannot be suppressed and will knock the first one into the black hole of lost words and forgotten ideas: the infamous ‘brain fog’ we hear so much about. The two ideas collide in a bottleneck and one has to go. Just as the loss of collagen changes the structure of your skin, this is a normal structural change in how the brain works. 

But there’s a way through the fog. Losing the ability to multi-task means you will become more engaged, more thorough and better able to concentrate. It means by being able to keep your eye on the prize, you can be more effective. Without the distractions of multitasking, many re-experience a career momentum not felt since their 20s. 


The great benefit of the cloak of invisibility that settles on our shoulders as we age is that we’re no longer driven to seek approval, and instead can look inside to discover what we want. 

Like most women, I’ve spent a lifetime denying myself favourite foods in order to look a certain way. But life is too short to sweat a few extra pounds, a couple of lip lines or a wrinkled neck. We all spend the first few years after the M-word holding onto those smaller, sexier outfits we used to wear, but I’m telling you to ditch them sooner rather than later. 

If you open the wardrobe to a rack of clothes that no longer fit, you’re inviting guilt and self-blame — attitudes that tell the pituitary to send out a hormone prompting the adrenals to open a fire hose of distress hormones, which, in turn, trigger anxiety and irritability. 

The truth is that no matter how enlightened we thought we were, the signals we got to look after, or enhance, our appearance when we were younger were driven by fertility hormones. 

Our cultural obsession with youth and beauty is just a symptom of the evolutionary necessity to procreate. As older women, we have the opportunity to choose how much we want to expend on diet plans, hair colour, dermatologists and make-up. See your invisibility as invigorating, not invalidating. 


f you’re a mother, you’re no longer primarily responsible for the survival of young children, and if you’re a wife, you can happily ignore any question emanating from the kitchen that begins with ‘Where’s the…’ Put bluntly, you care less

From birth, the female brain is a mean, lean, observing machine. The ability to read faces and hear vocal inflection can make women seem like mind-readers, all because of an awesomely fine-tuned nervous system and the right mix of neurochemicals to support this particular talent. 

You’ve probably spent a lifetime perfecting your ability to anticipate the needs and moods of others. You can feel their exhaustion, hunger or sadness before they do — and before you know it, you’ve set about trying to fix the problem. It can be powerful, having this ability. And also exhausting. 

But now we’re released from it: the tend-and-befriend response to stress triggered by the bonding hormone oxytocin quietens at this stage of life. If you’re a mother, you’re no longer primarily responsible for the survival of young children, and if you’re a wife, you can happily ignore any question emanating from the kitchen that begins with ‘Where’s the…’ Put bluntly, you care less. 

Of course, you’ll still be called upon to care for others — aged parents, in-laws or grandchildren. Men don’t even think about the responsibility of caring as long as there is a woman around to do it. 

Remember: you do have a choice. You may feel guilty saying no, but if you think about likely needs ahead of time, the second half of your life doesn’t have to be hijacked by caring for others. That doesn’t mean abandoning a sick partner or close family member. It means having a plan and some back-up help


During puberty the female brain alters dramatically, and effectively puts a hormonal dampener on this kind of aggressive honesty

As young girls, aged from four to six years old, the chances are that we were told off more than once for telling an older relative they had bad breath, or were fat, or had an ugly mole. We spoke out not only because we weren’t yet properly socialised, but because the brain circuits for judgment and conflict avoidance hadn’t yet come online. 

During puberty the female brain alters dramatically, and effectively puts a hormonal dampener on this kind of aggressive honesty. Nature selected for it: in the wild, a lower aggression flashpoint probably meant better chances of survival for the smaller gender. 

Starting fistfights with much larger primitive males probably wasn’t a great bet for success. Yet as oestrogen lowers, this lock on aggression can open. The part of the brain that used to hijack anger and strangle our voice is now neurologically released. The voice in our head that used to censor us, telling us to be quiet so we didn’t offend anyone, becomes less loud. 

It can be difficult to control at first, so don’t be surprised by sudden explosions. It can be like driving on a racetrack with a Maserati after decades of struggling to get a tired VW Beetle up an icy hill! After decades of looking after others, to carve out the space for ourselves, it’s essential to speak up.


Women can take testosterone if they truly miss the urgency of a younger libido. But it’s not a fix for everyone

After The Transition, when the hormones oestrogen, oxytocin and testosterone all go quiet, for many women their sexual reality changes completely. 

It’s not that we won’t ever want sex again. It’s more like not being hungry, yet still opening the refrigerator door to get something to eat just because it’s dinner time. That incredibly rich chocolate torte you once craved with your whole being just doesn’t seem as appealing. 

Of all the women I’ve talked to, many find they don’t care if they regain their desire. 

But if you are in a committed relationship with a man you love, he will care that you don’t seem to want him. 

The standoff that goes on in numerous homes at this time of life is a source of great sadness for many. Since our sex drive isn’t motivated by hormones any more, it has to be activated by other means. Emotion and connection can do it for women. The men who learn to talk to their wives — to connect through intimate conversation — will find their sex lives holding up better than those who don’t. 

Women can take testosterone if they truly miss the urgency of a younger libido. But it’s not a fix for everyone — I tried it and didn’t like how irritable it made me feel. 

There are big benefits to this dulling of desire. Just think what it would be like if you still had the sex drive of a 19-year-old? How would it change the priorities of each day? We’d think more about sexy clothes, make-up and seeking male attention — all the things we did during our fertile years — and leave less mental bandwidth for the more fulfilling things we want to do with our lives now. 

In my 60s, I realised that wasn’t how I wanted to live. Some swear by HRT. But, like everything, it’s a personal choice.


The correlation between social connection and long-term benefits for brain, heart and systemic health is strong

Getting together with friends nourishes the brain; girlfriends become the secret weapon of these later years. 

The correlation between social connection and long-term benefits for brain, heart and systemic health is strong. By lowering stress hormones, social connection reduces inflammation, improving cognition and immune function. Simply put, women who go out with their girlfriends twice a week — ideally in a group of three or more — are likely to live longer than those who don’t. 

To amplify those benefits, set aside all your responsibilities and take a trip with your BFFs, too. 


The relationship you have with your children, built on immensely powerful bonding hormones, is unique. And no matter how quickly they’ve grown up, no matter how old we are, the mum-brain circuits are very hard to turn off. Even if our kids are doing well, we still worry. 

In the sweep of history, female survival beyond the fertility phase is relatively new. There is no real road map to transitioning into being a mother of adult children. In the new era of longevity, this territory has yet to be named or explored. 

In my opinion, for the relationship with our adult children to survive, we have to ignore the mum-brain when it tempts us to interfere. That means not overthinking situations, not overwhelming them with advice and not attempting to ‘rescue’ them when they call. 

If we keep hovering, their experience is that we don’t validate their adulthood. And if we don’t find a way, they will erect a wall. 

They will block us on social media, screen our calls or simply be dishonest with us. They will find their own ways to push our relationship with them to a place they can tolerate, even if it hurts us. Beware.

  • Adapted by Alison Roberts from The Upgrade: How the Female Brain Gets Stronger And Better In Midlife And Beyond, by Dr Louann Brizendine (£12.99, Hay House). © Dr Louann Brizendine 2022. To order a copy for £11.69 (offer valid until May 2, 2022; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit or call 020 3176 2937. 

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