Faculty Q&A: Ursula Staudinger

December 4, 2013

Ursula M. Staudinger, PhD, is a leader in the field of lifespan and aging research and the director of the new Robert N. Butler Aging Center at Columbia University. She is also Robert N. Butler Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School.

We caught up with Dr. Staudinger shortly after she returned from the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America in New Orleans, and hours before she jetted off for Singapore, where she gave the keynote address at the TSAO Foundation's 20th Anniversary Gala celebrating the future of aging. Our conversation ranged from advice on successful aging to life in the Big Apple.

How did you first get interested in aging? 

When I did my Masters thesis, I was interested in life experience and how it accumulates or doesn’t accumulate in individuals. I worked on a method of how to capture that experience in a way that is replicable and valid. With my PhD, I deepened this interest and broadened it to become more interdisciplinary. In the 1980s, there was some awareness of the demographic shift happening with population aging, but almost no public attention given to it. That has drastically changed.

How important is chronological age?

Chronological age loses its informational value around 20 to 25. After that, it tells you less and less about the person. After age 50 or 60, it tells you almost nothing. Someone at age 70 might have a level of cognitive function equivalent to the average level of a 30-year-old. But you can also have a 40-year-old who operates at the average level of a 70-year-old. These differences can be very big.

Is age-related cognitive decline inevitable?

We know from empirical work that we can slow cognitive decline and shift the curve so people start from a higher level. Both of these things are having a tremendous effect on everyday life. A 70-year-old in 2013 has about a one standard deviation higher level of cognitive functioning than a 70 year-old 15 or 20 years back. But it doesn’t come automatically. We need to preserve our physical health, and we need an environment that is exciting and enriching.

You also often hear it said, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”—that older people are less able to learning new skills. Is there any truth to this maxim?

As a species we are set up to learn new things, to be adaptable to new environments. This can happen even late in life. However, the speed and conditions under with which this takes place depend on our prior learning history and whether we have fallen out of the habit of learning. In some work environments you may have a learning episode in the beginning and then you do your job without needing to acquire new skills. After that, it takes some effort to get it back into a learning mode. So it’s not so much chronological age as lack of use.

How about wisdom? Can we count on getting wiser with age?

It is not enough to grow older to become wiser. Sad but true. In order for wisdom to emerge, many things need to come together. We need exposure to many difficult life situations. We need a mentor to help us to make sense of these things and come up with good solutions. And we need to be open to new experiences, so that we continue to challenge our own insights. Usually when we grow older we see a decline in openness to new experiences. But this isn’t set in stone. We showed in one study that if incentives change and if we prepare older people for the new environment, they love it and want more of it. It has to do with how we engineer our society as much as to do with aging.

Longer lifespans present new challenges like increased rates of chronic disease. But as you and Dean Fried point out, they also present real opportunities. Please explain.

When we speak about demographic change, we have to think about two aspects. Along with gains in life expectancy we are seeing declines in fertility rates. This is good because this planet has finite resources. And if there are fewer of us, we can pay more attention to everyone and not leave behind 10 or 20 percent of every generation as is currently the case. These demographic changes present a chance for a more equal and just society.

Another interesting thing we learn from demographers is that there will be about the same number of people in each age bracket—young, middle-aged, and old. This is a very different kind of society than we have now. To prepare for it, we need increased participation in the labor force by those above age 55, and by women, and migrant populations. To do this, we also need to educate people of all ethnic backgrounds, genders, and age groups. If we manage to take advantage of these productive resources, we will be fine. We can maintain our welfare system and our living standard. 

How will the Columbia Aging Center help this come about?

The Aging Lab will focus on understanding the systemic quality of aging. In other words, how human biology interacts with context and personal attitudes and decisions. We need to know much more so we can design useful interventions to optimize aging trajectories. It is increasingly evident that there is no, one-size-fits-all approach.

On an individual level, do you have any advice for people on how to age successfully?

I would sum it up under the heading, “Challenge it or lose it.” You have to be prepared to continuously challenge yourself to some degree on many different levels—physically, cognitively, but also with regard to your value system, and your preferences. Whenever we stop doing that, it’s the beginning of the end. Build a life based on variety by developing your interests and your social network. If you have many facets to your life as you approach older age, any one deficit that arises will not matter as much.

I’m not sure that the notion of retirement is still adequate for the times we live in. I think we should rather think of changing activity patterns. People may want different kinds of paid work that is less stressful. Others may want to volunteer. But one rule certainly holds and that is it doesn’t make sense to do these things if we don’t enjoy them. Because why would you then want to live a long life if it’s just a chore. There has to be a balance.

You recently relocated from Germany. How do you like life in New York?

[My husband and I] like it here very much. One geographical feature that is not widely associated with New York City is that it is a city on the ocean.  In 45 minutes, you are on Jones Beach walking on a wide sand beach, no houses in sight. And 50 minutes to the north, you have these beautiful rolling hills and the woods where you can be by yourself. That is something you don’t have in Germany, which is more densely populated.   

I first visited New York the 1970s. What is admirable about the city is just how far it has come. It is culturally rich, environmentally friendly, and relatively free of crime. Apart from the occasional MTA headache, everyday life is very easy. We love the movies. There is a very rich documentary movie scene in New York. We go to the opera. It’s endless. Too many things to do!