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.

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.

Watch the live stream:


Mit dem Laden des Videos akzeptieren Sie die Datenschutzerklärung von YouTube.
Mehr erfahren

Video laden

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.