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.”

New Member of RUB University Council

On 7 February 2018, North Rhine-Westfalia’s Science Minister Isabel Pfeiffer-Poensgen appointed Ursula Staudinger, Klaus Engel and Beate Konze-Thomas new members of the University Council of Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB). The three new members now complete the board, which largely determines the fate of the university. “An amicable and critical support of the university is important. This is also a great opportunity for the university. If that is done successfully, you will be good ambassadors for the university,” said Pfeiffer-Poensgen in her address and presented certificates to all seven Members of the University Council.

Ursula Staudinger copyright Daniel Sadrowski für Ruhr-Universität Bochum
Isabel Pfeiffer-Poensgen and Ursula Staudinger (copyright Daniel Sadrowski für Ruhr-Universität Bochum)

The Council Members, who are appointed for five years, have far-reaching powers: They play a direct strategic role in determining the future development of the university and are responsible for supervising the operative business carried out by the university management. Dr Ricarda Brandts, Dr Klaus Engel, Birgit Fischer, Thomas Jorberg, Dr Beate Konze-Thomas, Prof. Dr Ursula Marie Staudinger and Prof. Dr Hildegard Westphal make up the new University Council of the RUB.

Live what you preach

Ursula Staudinger decided to live what she preaches as a lifespan psychologist: Changing gears and embracing novelty are spices of life and fuel for development and aging. After 15 years of building institutions – first in Germany at Jacobs University and then in the United States at Columbia University – she did not renew her position as Director of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center (CAC), which she was hired to build five years ago.

Instead, Ursula Staudinger is ready for a change and wants to have more time to devote to her interdisciplinary research interests and her writing as well as her advisory work. As of January 2018, she is Professor of Sociomedical Sciences and of Psychology in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences and Faculty at the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, Columbia University.

Columbia Public Health, Mailman School

“I have greatly enjoyed the time building the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center together with a wonderful team of colleagues within the CAC and across Columbia University. It is with gratitude and a sense of pride that I look back on what we have achieved over the last years,” Staudinger says. She sincerely thanks the CAC Team and the Columbia colleagues who have been supporting the CAC and its development.

The CAC has reached visibility and credibility across the University as well as nationally and internationally. It has developed to be a prototype for orchestrating truly interdisciplinary research and has taken on leadership on how science may help to transform societies to be better suited for longer lives to flourish and prosper.