Work matters: why learning on the job is key for healthy aging

How the nature of work affects the human aging process over a lifetime has received little attention until now. A recent Psychology and Aging piece titled “Novel Information Processing at Work Across Time Is Associated with Cognitive Change in Later Life: A 14-Year Longitudinal Study” by Ursula Staudinger, Yan-Liang Yu and Bin Cheng sheds new light on the interplay between work conditions and adult development. The authors found that exposure to more novel processing at work (NPW) across time attenuates cognitive decline. Their findings are an important contribution to designing work in a way that also promotes workers’ cognitive health.

It is already recognized that people in occupations with higher job complexity (e.g. legislators, managers, architects) generally show better cognitive performance, slower cognitive decline and also have a reduced risk of developing dementia (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease) later in life. “We wanted to find out more about the underlying mechanisms of job complexity,” says Staudinger. “And even more, what this means for workers in jobs with less complexity such as truck drivers, cleaners or bakers.”

Never stop learning

Applying multilevel transition models, Staudinger and her co-authors observed that novel information processing at work is a job characteristic that is linked to job complexity (in relation to both data and people) and therefore may reveal some of the mechanisms responsible for the protective effect on cognitive aging. “Not only has it a supporting effect on mental stimulation, but it can also be applied to less complex jobs,” Staudinger explains. “Thus, less cognitively able and less educated workers may also benefit from its protective characteristic.”

Changes at work are good for cognitive development

Novel information processing generally occurs when there is a mismatch between what we are used to do and what a given, new work task requires. When we bridge this gap, learning takes place. People that work in jobs that require more novelty processing, such as incorporating new pieces of information or facing new situational aspects on a more regular basis, are likely to garner greater cognitive benefits compared to those in jobs with less changes.

Data from over 4,000 individuals

“We looked at data from more than 4,000 individuals over a 14-year window,” says Staudinger. This included data from the Health and Retirement Study as well as more detailed information on occupational characteristics from the free online-database Occupational Information Network (O*Net) in the United States. “What we found is that exposure to increased novelty processing particularly slowed down cognitive decline in executive function and episodic memory, two domains that usually show strong age-related decline.” Their study not only focused on paid worked, but also considered the mental stimulation of leisure and volunteering activities.

For Staudinger, the findings of the new study highlight the importance of promoting lifelong learning. “While jobs of higher complexity confer benefits for cognitive aging, we must not overlook socially disadvantaged individuals in less complex jobs who are at greater risk of cognitive impairment,” she says. “That’s why work-related activities that incur learning processes are so important.” Staudinger is convinced that introducing some kind of novelty such as work task changes from time to time is possible in most jobs: “Simple measures can be easily implemented in daily work routines. They are an essential building block for strengthening societies of longer lives.”

More about this topic: Re-Thinking Human Aging

Report on Tomorrow’s Science: Ageing and Life Course Research in Germany

On December 16, Ursula M. Staudinger, spokeswoman for the Leopoldina Commission on Demographic Change, and other authors presented the Report on Tomorrow’s Science “Ageing and the Life Course. Research for Longer Lives”. For several years, seven leading scientists from different aging disciplines worked together on the future report under Staudinger’s leadership. This is dedicated to the central question: What research can help us to cope well with the challenges of longer life and demographic change?

“Alongside climate change, demographic change is one of the central challenges of the 21st century,” emphasized Staudinger in her opening statement at the online event of the German National Academy of Science Leopoldina with around 100 participants. Average life expectancy has increased by around 40 years over the past 150 years. In addition, life courses have become more diverse. These developments contribute to the fact that the scientific field of aging and life course research has gained significantly in importance. It is important to shape the “years gained” in such a way that the quality of life, productivity and innovative capacity of a society of longer lives are maintained and further developed.

Germany has some catching up to do

The increase in average life expectancy is an achievement of socio-cultural development. In contrast to other species, humans have the ability to change their own development and the aging process. So human aging is not only influenced biologically. Rather, the aging process arises from the continuous interaction between biology, individual decisions and lifestyles, as well as the socio-cultural context. The biopsychosocial model developed by Staudinger illustrates the interplay between context, person and organism.

Ursula M. Staudinger at the online event on 16 December

This finding also underscores the need for interdisciplinary research that brings together findings from individual disciplines in order to enable the successful management of demographic change. According to the Report on Tomorrow’s Science, Germany is currently still lagging behind its potential, despite extensive research, and compares poorly with other countries such as France, the Netherlands, the USA and Great Britain.

Interdisciplinary research is needed

The authors of the future report point out that the predominant funding topics for aging research in Germany are diseases and their molecular basis as well as care and technical assistance systems in old age. However, in order to be able to answer key research questions, other research areas must be given greater consideration and all relevant disciplines must be included in funded projects. “The inclusion must not stop at a juxtaposition of the disciplines but must take the step towards an equal cooperation in order to raise the progress of knowledge in aging and life course research to the next level,” said Staudinger. “So far there has been no will for a broad-based aging research agenda.”

Social, behavioral and human sciences are also much less represented in German aging and life course research than in Great Britain, Sweden or the Netherlands, for example. Strategic and programmatic funding in the form of centers, programs, research infrastructure and further training measures is of great importance for interdisciplinarity. The authors of the report spoke out in favor of a competence network – building on existing centers – with a central coordination office and wanted politicians to send positive signals for a national research strategy in the field of aging and life course research.

Corona as an amplifier

In addition to the Report on Tomorrow’s Science, an extra supplement identified challenges that arise from the coronavirus pandemic for aging and life course research. The pandemic revealed both the strengths and weaknesses of the health system and further enhance the topics mentioned in the future report. For example, people with previous illnesses that are more common in old age are exposed to a higher risk of death. The authors emphasize that the challenges facing society as a result of demographic change, climate change and currently COVID-19 must be seen more closely in context in the future and addressed with even more determination.

The following authors of the report spoke at the event:
  • Professor Josef Ehmer, Department of Economic and Social History, University of Vienna, Austria; International Research Center “Work and Human Lifecycle in Global History”, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany
  • Professor Alexia Fürnkranz-Prskawetz (Leopoldina member), Institute of Statistics and Mathematical Methods in Economics, Vienna University of Technology, Austria; Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital, Vienna, Austria
  • Professor Gerd Kempermann (Lead), German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases Dresden; Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden, Dresden University of Technology
  • Professor Karl Ulrich Mayer (Leopoldina member), Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin;
    Yale University, New Haven, USA
  • Professor Cornel Sieber, Institute for Biomedicine of Ageing, Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg
  • Professor Johannes Siegrist, Institute for Medical Sociology, Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf
  • Professor Ursula M. Staudinger (Leopoldina member, Spokeswoman Leopoldina Standing Committee Demographic Change, Lead), Dresden University of Technology

Ursula Staudinger takes office as Rector of the Technische Universität Dresden

Ursula Staudinger took office as rector of the Technische Universität Dresden (TUD) on August 18th. The day before, she presented her vision and goals for the university and the extended rectorate at a press conference in Dresden.

According to Staudinger, the main tasks of the new rectorate for the next five years will be based on two major guidelines: On the one hand, she wants to develop and implement the award-winning strategy of excellence “TUD 2028 – Synergy and beyond”. Complementary to this, TUD is to become a global university for the 21st century.

“First and foremost, a global university needs excellent basic and applied research for the 21st century,” explained Staudinger. With a focus on broad interdisciplinarity, this could develop contributions in order to respond to the great challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. Staudinger mentioned climate change and demographic change as examples.

Ursula Staudinger is the new rector of TU Dresden (© Robert Lohse)

Educating global citizens

“The global university of the 21st century is very aware that it is also a social actor,” emphasized Staudinger. Beyond its role as an institution of higher education, it becomes active itself. In addition, the university of the 21st century is designed to train global citizens and to open up to new groups of students. “By that I mean that we look at the entire lifespan – and go beyond the classic age groups of the students.”

According to Staudinger, the TUD of the future will be a real laboratory, which will apply knowledge gained from research to itself and be measured against it. Despite its size with almost 40,000 members, it is crucial that TUD sees itself as a learning organization and can respond flexibly to changes in the requirements of a university. That is why Staudinger wants to significantly increase diversity and integration in the university and thus benefit from a greater variety of perspectives. At the same time, she plans to press ahead with digitization in all areas at full speed in order to gain more degrees of freedom for innovation and research through efficiency gains.

Team spirit and cooperation

In order to be able to successfully implement her goals for TUD, Staudinger has expanded the Rectorate and launched the university culture department, which is unique in Germany. In addition to Staudinger, two other women will belong to the seven-person rectorate. Staudinger values transparent, appreciative and proactive cooperation in the rectorate and with all groups at the university. “I trust in the often- quoted Dresden spirit, of which I have been convinced first-hand in the past few weeks.”

Re-thinking Human Aging

After more than 20 years of intensive research, Ursula M. Staudinger has recently published her key findings in an American Psychologist piece titled “The Positive Plasticity of Adult Development: Potential for the 21st Century”. Her positive-plasticity paradigm represents an important step towards a better understanding of the dynamic process of human development and aging and provides valuable starting points to inform social policy and create effective measures to optimize aging.

Humans are living longer than ever before. In fact, the average life expectancy at birth has increased by almost 40 years since 1840. “Not only are people living longer, but they are also enjoying more healthy years,” says Staudinger. “Of course, this is a gift as well as a challenge for individuals and society alike.” Moreover, longer lives highlight an extraordinary feature of humans. “Unlike other species, we have the intrinsic capacity to modify our own development and aging,” explains Staudinger. This happens intentionally or unintentionally, for better or worse, and also within natural set limits.

A new model for human aging

So positive plasticity, as defined by lifespan scientists, is about the potential for modification as an integral characteristic of human development. “It’s important to understand that human development and aging are neither biologically nor contextually determined,” says Staudinger. “It’s far more complex because biological, sociocultural forces and a given person’s behaviors are all part of it.”

To illustrate this dynamic process, Staudinger developed a three-tier interactive model of adult development and aging that enables plasticity. It shows that development trajectories are the result of continuous interactions between organism (e.g. organs, cells), context (e.g. institutions, environment) and person (e.g. behavior, attitudes) creating the potential for intraindividual variations. What’s new about this model is that it includes the person as an active agent of his or her own development. In addition, this third ‘influencing factor’ on the aging process is not only an “emergent property” of the interaction between biology and context but needs to be taken into account in its own right.

Longer lives are a gift as well as a challenge. Foto: © Stephane Juban, Unsplash

Challenge it or lose it

How then can the positive plasticity of human aging be leveraged? Research has shown that positive plasticity can be maintained throughout life until old age unless severe pathological processes (e.g. Alzheimer’s dementia) interfere. “There is substantial evidence that recurrent exposure to novelty and challenge are important triggers of positive plasticity for both personality and cognition,” explains Staudinger. “Learning new skills and processing novel information – whether at work or at leisure – seem to buffer cognitive decline. So really, the motto for societies of longer lives should be ‘challenge it or lose it’.”

In times of population aging, there is a growing need to know more about the conditions facilitating positive plasticity of adult development. This means looking further into constellations of sociocultural and physical context characteristics, behavioral patterns of individuals as well as their biological endowments to optimize aging for as many individuals as possible. “But we will have to differentiate between groups of people as there is no promising ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach,” Staudinger stresses. “Although we still have a long way ahead, the insights gained permit us to take steps in the right direction. And when older people live healthier and independently for longer, everyone benefits.”

More on this topic:

APA Journals Article Spotlight | Rethinking adult development

New Rector of Technische Universität Dresden

On 17th March 2020, Technische Universität Dresden’s Extended Senate elected Ursula M. Staudinger to be the new Rector for a designated term of five years. She is scheduled to take office in mid-August 2020.

In the run-up to the election, presentations were held at the University. Ursula M. Staudinger highlighted the successful substantiation of TU Dresden’s University of Excellence application as a pivotal task for her tenure as Rector and thereby leading the University to a confirmation of its excellence status. To this end, the strengthening of broad interdisciplinarity on equal footing will be of crucial importance.

Excellent Research and Teaching

Staudinger states that, naturally, excellent research must go hand in hand with excellent and innovative teaching. “In addition, I would like to develop TU Dresden into a global university for the 21st century, and I see the 200th anniversary in 2028 as an important milestone in this process.” TU Dresden can make decisive contributions to mastering the global challenges facing humanity and at the same time further expand its role as an important societal stakeholder.

Ursula M. Staudinger at TU Dresden © Michael Kretzschmar

As a former professor at TU Dresden, she was deeply impressed by the development of the University in recent years: “It was not least this performance curve of the University that motivated me to apply for the position of Rector.” Professor Ursula M. Staudinger has extensive leadership and management experience, not to mention excellent knowledge of other academic systems, which she would like to bring to TU Dresden, as well as her excellent international networks.

Farewell to Columbia University

Ursula Staudinger has been working at Columbia University in New York since 2013, where she was the Founding Director of the Robert N. Butler Aging Center for five years. She will leave Columbia University in August. “It is not easy for me to leave Columbia University and the extraordinary interdisciplinary network that I was able to build up with colleagues there. I hope I can maintain a close relationship with Columbia,” says Staudinger.