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Gail Sheehy was in her mid-30s when she began the research for "Passages," a New York Times best seller about the adult life cycle, that was published 20 years ago in 1976. The book itself proposed that people continue to develop by stages and to confront predictable crises, or passages, between each stage of adulthood.

In her book, Sheehy regarded the mid-30s as the halfway mark and the prime of life, and the years between 35 and 45 the Deadline Decade, as if we had only until our mid-50s to resolve the crisis of midlife. The book itself stopped before age 50. "Like so many others of my generation," Sheehy reflects, "I couldn't imagine life beyond 50, and I certainly couldn't bring myself to consider it as a time of special possibility or potential."Living beyond 50, says Sheehy, "had always conjured up moms who slipped into depression or some slope-shouldered fellow sitting in a fishing boat while the world goes by. It was supposed to be a time of winding down. . . . Careers were settled; one was either coasting toward retirement, resigned to failure, or somewhat patronized as a has-been success. Children were launched. Idealism had faded. Learning was completed. Love was about cuddling or rocking grandchildren, certainly not associated with computer dating or uninhibited sex.

"That's the way I thought it was," acknowledges Sheehy. "We would get old in much the same way our parents did." Yet, she stresses, it was to her surprise that she discovered that "the conventional maps in our minds and the timetables that go with them can keep us imprisoned in old ways of thinking about life beyond youth."

Sheehy admits to her shock when, seven years after "Passages," she set out to write a sequel only to discover a historic revolution in the adult life cycle. After conducting hundreds of interviews, she recalls, a voice kept nagging at the back of her conscious mind: There is something deeper, richer and much riskier that you must try to grasp. And grasp it she did. Her conclusion? "The second half of adult life is not the stagnant, depressing, downward slide we have always assumed it to be."

In fact, in her latest book, "New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time," Sheehy rejects the whole notion of declining middle age and the old demarcations and descriptions of adulthood, beginning at 21 and ending at 65, noting they are hopelessly out of date. In substitute, she maps out in their place a completely new frontier - a "second adulthood" in middle life.

"Stop and recalculate," she writes. "Imagine the day you turn 45 as the infancy of another life" - a life in which, instead of declining, men and women who embrace such an adulthood progress through entirely new passages into lives of deeper meaning, renewed playfulness and creativity beyond menopause and (are you surprised?) male menopause."

And what is the crux of Sheehy's message? To the extent people entering their 40s and 50s today risk exploring a whole unexplored territory in middle age that does not fit at all within the confines of the old map of youth and age, they can make dramatic changes in their lives and habits and look forward to living decades more in smoothly functioning bodies with agile minds - so long as those minds remain open to new vistas of learning and imagination and anticipate experiences yet to be conquered and savored. Thus, she concludes, middle age is a gift.

In her book, Sheehy presents startling facts, a few of which are the following:

- Middle age has been pushed far into the 50s - if it is acknowledged at all today.

- People are taking longer to grow up and much longer to die, thereby shifting all the stages of adulthood - by up to 10 years.

- A woman who reaches age 50 today - and remains free of cancer and heart disease - can expect to see her 92nd birthday. That means she can still expect at least 32 years and likely a span of 40 or more years to fill with meaningful, gainful and productive living - after reaching her 50th birthday.

- Similarly, men can expect a dramatically lengthened life span, living at least until age 81. And recent projections are almost as startling for men as women: "If you get men through the 35 to 60 age period without their dying of heart disease, they are [in later decades] stronger and less frail than women," observes a national health expert.

- Just as middle age has been pushed well into the 50s, one may not become "old" until very shortly before death.

- In contemporary America, eight in 10 people sail past their 65th birthday.

- Scientists have uncovered the first evidence suggesting there may be no inborn limit to how old people can grow. Given good health practice, the current life expectancy of about 75 years old may rise to 90 and 100 in the foreseeable future.

- We now have not one but three adult lives we may anticipate: provisional adulthood (18-30), first adulthood (30-45), and second adulthood (45 to 85+).

- In today's world, people have the ability to customize their own life style, and the ages we enter and leave each period of our lives will vary, with it being likely that, at times, we will share our different adulthoods with different marital partners.

"In my view," Sheehy emphasizes, "we have a greater need than ever before to recognize the passages of our lives, not only because we are living longer but because the rapidity and complexity of changes taking place in the world are constantly reshaping the adult life cycle into something fundamentally different than from what we have known. . . [As a result,] "We seldom make time to process even the most meaningful experiences of our lives; we just speed through them."

And what are our challenges in this era of rapid change? Sheehy has this to say: "Have you asked yourself: What can you make of your next life? Whom do you want to share it with, if anybody? What new ventures or adventures can you now dare try? What old shells can you slough off? Are there fatal traps you should avoid? What about those exploratory and spiritual journeys you keep putting off? What can you best give back? What investments in learning, in changes in lifestyle are you willing to undertake to make all these extra years worthwhile? [And] how long do you want to live?"