Aging: Facts and Fictions how to make the many years to come the best yet
Dr. Ursula Staudinger is the Founding Director of the Robert N Butler Columbia University Aging Center. I met Dr. Staudinger this spring, when she gave a lecture on aging at the Columbia Club. Her bold statement, that one in two females born now will live until they’re 100 years old, stunned me. I resolved to find out more.
A lifespan psychologist and internationally-recognized aging researcher, Staudinger came to Columbia in 2013. She also leads the International Longevity Center (ILC) USA, part of a 17-member multinational consortium designed to help societies address longevity and population aging in positive and productive ways. Staudinger has done extensive research on the opportunities and challenges presented by increases in life expectancy. She has unique findings that testify to the modifiability of human aging.
Her insights will help you and your daughters uncover the best tips for making your extended years healthy, productive, active, and strong.
A Pioneer in the Study of Aging
BWB: How did you become interested in aging? Tell us whether you were a pioneer in the field, who your mentors were, how your appointment at Columbia came about.
I completed my doctoral studies in developmental psychology in the 1980s. Developmental psychology had just begun expanding to include the adult years beyond adolescence. My mentor, Paul Baltes, was one of the co-founders of Lifespan Psychology. He was one of the first to make the case that humans continue to develop past 18, even if physical maturation is mostly complete at that point.
The Columbia Aging Center started in 2013. Columbia decided to found a university-wide center of aging inspired by the legacy of Robert N Butler. Butler was one of the leading geriatricians in this country and the first director of the National Institute on Aging.
One of our focal areas is aging and work. We have been incentivizing employers to change their HR strategies to adapt to an aging population and more diverse workforce.
When I interviewed for the position, I presented a model for the center that combined two aspects. The first involved conducting interdisciplinary research to find out more about how to optimize aging trajectories for as many people as possible. The second component regarded implementation. I proposed we attempt to implement the results of our research into society in some form. This is now the model we use.
For instance, one of our focal areas is aging and work. We have been doing research that showed how work biographies needed to be shaped in order to maintain health and productivity. With this information in tow, we have been incentivizing employers to change their HR strategies to adapt to an aging population and more diverse workforce.
Changes in hygiene, nutrition education, and advances in our medical knowledge have been key.
BWB: To what do you attribute the “aging population” explosion?
We’ve had enormous cultural achievements that have helped extend the human lifespan, globally. One enormous contribution to this achievement is medical knowledge and practice as well as public health. Changes in hygiene, nutrition education, and advances in our medical knowledge have been key. We have new therapy treatments for Cancer, people know to make lifestyle choices that control their high blood pressure. There have also been fundamental changes in work environments over the last 150 years due to advances in technology along with a widening and broadening of our educational system. All of these contribute to increasing longevity.
In the last 10-15 years, there’s been a decline in the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease.
BWB: What lifestyle choices can improve physical stamina, health, physical appearance, and cognitive, emotional and social function, as we get older?
As we live longer, the amount of time we spend in a dependent and disabled state is getting proportionately shorter. For example, in the last 10-15 years, there’s been a decline in the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease. Good habits include physical exercise, nutrition, access to preventive medical care, and social participation. Another key factor is education. The more we know, the better lifestyle choices we make.
It is extremely important that you have a regular physical routine. Balance, cardiovascular, and strength training are three essential components to your fitness regime. Additionally, it’s important to have a balanced diet. Your diet should be individually tailored to the needs of your body. For example, some people can tolerate fats better than others.
As for preventing intellectual deterioration, apart from maintaining your physical fitness, it’s important to introduce a little bit of novelty into what you do. Doing things outside of your comfort zone challenges your brain to keep active and healthy.
Finally, it’s important to have meaning in your life. People achieve that in different ways.
BWB: Is it possible to slow down or reverse the aging process?
We influence aging. There’s enormous plasticity. We don’t know if we can slow aging, or whether our decline is pushed to a later stage where it suddenly accelerates. Research will tell us which of the two is closer to reality.
With baby boomers turning 60, there will be generations of women fighting ageism. Stereotypes will change.
BWB: Given the societal bias against aging, living longer seems like it will bring bigger problems. How do you see that playing out?
I think there will be a gradual change in general public opinion as more and more older individuals continue to participate in society and make a difference. Just look at this year’s candidates for president. The finalists are all past 65 and no one really questions their abilities on that account. American society has had a tendency to over-value youth, especially when it comes to women, but that’s changing. With baby boomers turning 60, there will be generations of women fighting ageism. Stereotypes will change. There will be a much more balanced view of what’s beautiful. It’s a matter of exuding self-confidence, of rethinking how we feel about ourselves.
As for financing longer lives, the major tool is participation in the labor market. We have to make sure that whatever the chronological age, people have access to the labor market. We also need to mix periods of work with periods of learning and free time. This will help us maintain our motivation to participate.