Nobel Prize Dialogue Berlin 2019

Towards Health: Equality, Responsibility and Research

Nobel Prize winners, world-leading researchers, political activists, media representatives and the public got together at the Nobel Prize Dialogue in Berlin on 8 November 2019. The event focused on questions concerning health: How can we achieve healthy living and a responsible healthcare provision for everyone? How can we create and promote health education as well as healthy work and environmental conditions? And what contributions can research make to all of this?

Ursula Staudinger at the Nobel Prize Dialogue Berlin 2019
Photo: David Ausserhofer for Leopoldina

Nobel Prize Laureates and World-leading Scientists

Together with Peter Agre and Tolu Oni, Ursula Staudinger discussed the question “What does ‘Health’ mean to you?” in the opening session. Staudinger highlighted the fact that focusing on treatment and prevention of diseases is not the flip side of strengthening health resources from the beginning of life. Moreover, she alerted the audience to the fact that health is not unidimensional but rather consists of multiple domains such as physical, functional, cognitive and emotional health. And that the sources of health are accordingly multifold including genetics, behavioral patterns and contextual as well as environmental exposures.

Importance of Physical Fitness

In her talk “Mental Health and Longer Lives: Positive Plasticity of Cognitive Aging” Staudinger emphasized that the age-related decline of cognitive functioning can indeed be attenuated. “One way to change the trajectory of the decline is to invest in your aerobic physical fitness,” she said. Thus, scientific studies have shown that with increasing levels of fitness, the brains of sixty-year-old individuals need less activity to achieve better performances just like younger brains.

Nobel Laureate Edvard Moser and Ursula Staudinger
Photo by David Ausserhofer for Leopoldina

In the following Q & A Session on „Mental Health, Cognition and Ageing“, Nobel laureate Edvard Moser and Ursula Staudinger answered questions of participants. Both agreed that human brains are extremely adaptable and that activity as well as exposure to novelty and challenge are key factors to prevent cognitive decline. Asked about the effects of new technologies on the trajectory of cognitive decline, Staudinger said that new technologies can be helpful to compensate for experienced decline such as the loss in memory function. Yet we need to be mindful that such support does not create disuse where use is still possible. Therefore, it is crucial for education in the 21st century to convey digital competence in the sense of becoming “masters of the toys and the information they provide”. Both scientists showed great optimism about healthy aging. Yet they also pointed to hazards such as air pollution that might put a stop to the positive trend.

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Ursula Staudinger can be seen at 16:03 and 2:29:22

About the Event

The event has traditionally taken place during the week of the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony since 2012 and was now held in Germany for the first time. Bridging science and society, the Nobel Prize Dialogue inspires and honors human ingenuity, research and collaborative, creative thinking.

Expert Discussion at the Federal Ministry of the Interior

Transition from working life to retirement is an important aspect of demographic development. To gain more insight, German Federal Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer met with a small group of experts from science, local government and business. Ursula Staudinger was invited as aging scientist and contributed important scientific findings on the plasticity of human aging and the productivity in older age to the discussion.

The Federal Minister of the Interior with participants of the expert discussion on 28 February 2019, Source: BMI

Focus on entire working life

During the discussion they talked about how to make better use of the new potential of a society of longer lives. Ursula Staudinger argued that business and politics should promote a culture of appreciation, development and learning over the entire working life. “Variety throughout our vocational careers as well as new tasks for our work routines help counteract the age-related cognitive decline,” she said. It was important to look at the entire working life and create new occupational paths. This would allow for lateral careers as well as (insured) breaks for education, family or personal projects.

At the same time, the legal retirement age should be gradually adapted to the increased life expectancy, Staudinger said. It was, however, decisive to hold onto a legal retirement age. This would allow people to stop working without justification and sustain the change of generations. Yet re-entering paid work after retirement should be facilitated for all those who would like to.

Shaping the gained years of life is an important task for all

Ralf Paul Bittner, mayor of an awarded age-appropriate community, and Marion Kopmann, founder and managing director of a consultancy for continued employment and education for older people, also participated in the expert discussion. All participants agreed that the abilities and talents of older people should be better acknowledged, used and promoted within our society. Shaping the gained years of life is an important task for all of us. The impact of demographic change also poses a challenge for public service: About one third of the Ministry of the Interior’s employees will retire by 2030.

German National Academy of Sciences: 10 Years of Successful Work on Demographic Change and Aging

In its role as German National Academy of Sciences, the Leopoldina has been advising politicians and society on key future issues for ten years. On 21st and 22nd September 2018, the Leopoldina Annual Assembly set to focus on science-based policy under the motto ‘Nature – Science – Society’. Ursula Staudinger spoke on ‘Demographic Change and Aging’ and illustrated the most important findings and recommendations on the topic. Over 80 scientists from 10 nations have worked on these recommendations.

Ursula Staudinger at Leopoldina Annual Assembly 2018

The average life expectancy has increased by 30 years over the past 100 years. Important drivers leading to these ‘societies of longer lives’ are the economic development, public health systems, medical sciences and practices, the development of the educational systems and finally the development of working environments. Meanwhile, all nations are affected by this increase of average life expectancy.

The societal consequences of this demographic change are often presented solely as burden to modern welfare states by means of the ‘age load quotient’ – the relation of the population older than 65 to the population aged between 20 and 64. The societal focus on the chronological age, however, ignores the fact that the human species possesses the ability to change its own nature. For human development and aging are not determined rather they are created by a continuous interaction between biology, person and culture. Aging, also in its biological components, is modifiable through influences of society and individual within its biologically set limits.

The future viability of a society with an aging population, however, is largely dependent on its own will to change. Therefore, important steps are necessary to change outdated structures in the world of education, the labor market and national economies, in regions and communities, families, civil societies and politics, in the minds of people as well as in the practice of everyday life.

Ursula Staudinger at the Research Summit 2018

400 decision-makers, experts, opinion-leaders and newcomers from science, business, society and politics met at the Research Summit 2018 in Berlin to consult about the future of the German research and innovation system. Ursula Staudinger joined the panel discussion on “Perspectives for German research and innovation politics”. She said that to strengthen the innovation capacity in societies of longer lives, several stumbling blocks had to be overcome.

There was still a widespread prejudice that innovations were connected to a specific chronological age, she said. However, research demonstrated that innovations were not linked to age per se, but rather to specific stimulating conditions and to the ability to engage people – through learning – in the actual development. Moreover, research suggests that the most exciting and sustainable innovations take place in age-heterogeneous development teams. “Innovation occurs where new knowledge and grown experiences and capabilities are brought together and integrated,” she stated.

Staudinger praised Germany’s educational system in its entire variety as one of its major strengths. “It is my hope that we will give as much attention and investment to adult training – be it work-based learning or outside the profession – as we have done so fantastically for the first 20 years of education at the beginning of our lives,” she said. It was the responsibility of societies of longer lives to ensure continuous education in the same quality throughout our longer lives. “If not, more and more people will be left behind – and our country will lose its innovative capacity.”

The panel discussion on YouTube (Video 4, Forschungsgipfel 2018, Diskussion Inner Circle 1)


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Are we reaching the limits of cognitive plasticity?

The aging of the European population is a long-term challenge that will greatly impact health systems and the economy of the respective countries. While decreasing cognitive performance in older age is a particular concern, a key question is: Will the “new old” continue to be mentally healthier than their predecessors? If cognitive impairment could be postponed at a higher speed than increases in life expectancy, older individuals might be able to be productive for a longer time and require fewer care resources in the future than is the case today.

The good news is that cognitive performance in old age has indeed increased in most of the 10 European countries that have participated in the longitudinal study SHARE (Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe). This better performance of later-born cohorts at various cognitive measures is also known as the Flynn effect. Yet recent evidence documented in the new publication “Trends and determinants of the Flynn effect in cognitive functioning among older individuals in 10 European countries” by Philipp Hessel, Jonas M. Kinge, Vegard Skirbekk and Ursula M. Staudinger suggests that some countries are approaching the limits of cognitive plasticity. “We have found that the countries that initially displayed better cognitive performance – such as Denmark, Germany and Sweden – have shown less improvement or even stability across 10 years, whereas the countries that started out lower continued to show improvements,” says Staudinger.

Increases in secondary education, reductions in cardiovascular diseases, labor market participation as well as physical activity are recognized factors that have contributed to a better cognitive performance of older people across the years. Therefore, a reason why improvements in cognitive performance are more obvious in countries that initially had lower scores (i.e. France, Italy, Spain) may be that they have witnessed considerable advancements in their educational systems, particularly leading to fewer individuals with only primary education during the last ten years.

In contrast, the reason for a stalling in higher performing countries may be threefold: First, it could be that there are biologically set limits to cognitive plasticity. Second, possibly the change in high performing countries has slowed down, but may be observable over longer periods than 10 years. Finally, it may be that societal structures addressing midlife and beyond have not yet been optimized to provide for rich physical, social and intellectual stimulation as is the case for younger individuals. “This is why we need more systematic development and implementation of lifelong-learning regimes across all levels of education,” demands Staudinger. “Moreover, we still have a long way to go in terms of optimizing work settings as well as volunteering activities to promote cognitive fitness well into old age.”