Peter Martin

Topics and Timestamps:

Alex Bishop

I am here with Dr. Peter Martin, a university professor from Iowa State University in the Human Development and Family Science department. I appreciate you being here today, taking the time to answer a few questions.



Peter Martin

Well I’m glad to be here and thank you for inviting me to be part of this very exciting project that you are undertaking.


Alex Bishop

Great, great. If you don’t mind can you share a little bit about your current role as a Gerontologist or Aging Researcher? One of the things that I like to ask those in the field is “How did you become interested in the field of Gerontology or field of aging or perhaps did Gerontology or the field of aging find you?” Can you kind of give a little bit of insight and talk a little bit about what your interests are.



Peter Martin

Well sure, I’m I’m currently, as you indicated, a University Professor at Iowa State University in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies but I started out in Psychology. I was a Psychology student. I’ve always been interested in psychology and it was really, as so often is the case, my major mentors in graduate school who convinced me that I should have an interest and look at lifespan development. So even though I do most of my work with older adults now I really have studied people at all ages. My first very first study as a researcher was in child development. I did work on adolescence, young adults, midlife, and sort of ended up at the very end of the possible lifespan doing work on longevity and centenarians, people 100 years and older. And I guess the reason why I got stuck there is because if you’re interested in lifespan you don’t get any more lifespan than talking to centenarians. If you do midlife you get half of a lifespan, and so I really got intrigued by that research. So most of what I do is work on longevity. But really with a specific interest in personality, stress, coping, adaptation. When you get to be 100 you have had a lot of that. A lot of life events. A lot of stress in your life. And there’s a lot we can learn from these so-called expert survivors. So that has intrigued me. Of course I met another mentor at the University of Georgia in my first faculty position, Dr. Leonard Poon, who started his new project on centenarians and invited me to be a part of it. So I’ve not left that field ever since.


Alex Bishop (2:32)

Now given your interest and background in in lifespan human development, you created, or at least came up with a colleague, the Development Adaptation Model a few, well, gosh what’s it been, two decades ago! And would you mind kind of explaining this model and really trying to define for us Developmental Adaptation. What is Developmental Adaptation?



Peter Martin

Sure. There are really four important components to the Developmental Adaptation model. Perhaps the most important one is, as I’ve indicated before in my work, the most important one is life events. I do believe, borrowing from one of our neighboring disciplines, the term “We are what we experience.” So many different experiences that we have over our lifespan, it defines who we are. It defines what we do. And so the core piece of the Developmental Adaptation model is really the experience of life events. Good and bad. Relevant and perhaps not so relevant. But it’s not just the event itself that’s important. It’s how you deal with it. How you cope with events. How you adjust to it. How you grow after the experiences. So there’s a clear link, and this comes out of stress and development research, is to say how you experience certain stresses, life events, and then how do you cope with these particular events. But the coping part is not the last component in our model. How you cope with events, the experience that you have, also has an effect on certain outcome variables. Whether you are healthy physically or not. Whether you are mentally healthy or not. Whether you get depressed or not. Whether you get divorced or whether you stay married. So the family aspect is too. So we have these three components out of four: life experiences, how you cope with them, and what the effect is of the outcome of this process.


And then the last component is really the first one in our model but it traces things back into your childhood or adolescence or young adulthood depending on where you are on the lifespan. So as a lifespan developmentalist we don’t believe that we just experience things now and live in the here and now. There’s really a trajectory over time or what some people have called the long arm of childhood. So what experiences you have in adulthood may, in part, depend on you had experienced in your childhood years. What you experience in midlife may depend on what you experience in young adulthood and so forth. So we’re going from early experiences also in your family of origin, the kind of relationship that you have to your parents, to the experiences you have in the present time to how you cope with it and then the outcome variables. So developmental adaptation. Development obviously describes the trajectory over time so we are not looking at a moment in time. We are saying these things are connected over time. That is an important aspect. And then the adaptation part is that at any point in your lifespan you have to adapt to the changes that you experience. And they’re not all bad. Even good experiences that you have, you have to still come to terms with. And so it’s the interaction, really, between the time trajectory that we feel is important in connection to how you react, what behaviors you use, to  certain life events with certain outcome variables. So that’s it in a nutshell.


Alex Bishop (6:00)

Now is that term, adaptation, is that some might say, is that the same as resilience?


Peter Martin

Resilience is part of it. Resilience is a term that we are now using much more often then we had when we developed, first, the Developmental Adaptation model. But from our perspective resilience is one way to react to events. So it’s part of that coping, the adaptation component. But again resilience doesn’t necessarily address the developmental part of it. It more or less develops the component of how you are prepared. So it is part of the model and it might be useful to be included in a revision of our model but it is not the entire model. It does not speak to the other components. It focuses more on sort of your own characteristics in dealing with stressful even traumatic events. The early part of the resilience literature really looked at war events and how children overcame these war-related experiences of the Holocaust and how some people who experience these still bounced back and did very very well whereas others did not. And so these are obviously very traumatic experiences.


They are still part of our model but we also certainly look at ordinary events. You know, getting married. Having your first job. Changing jobs. Retirement. Widowhood. All of these are events. They’re not necessarily calling for strong sense of resilience; they may call sort of more daily ways of adjusting to these everyday changes.


Alex Bishop (7:40)

So you talk about trauma, and you talk about the kind of average normative events that people experience but you also mentioned just a minute ago the positive. People have to adapt to the positive. Can you give an example of what that might be? Are you talking, like, being a celebrity or getting, you know, being in a leadership position? What are some of those positive events that require adaptation?



Peter Martin

Yeah when we talk about life events we sort of look at various domains of life events. One of them, obviously, is family events that occur. For most people getting married is a positive event. But it’s very stressful! I talk to people who are getting ready and preparing for a wedding. That is one of the peak experiences for most, many people, certainly, but it does take some adaptation. It certainly it’s not just the day on which you get married that’s important. It’s what led up to it, that go you where you are, but also how you adjust to marriage and afterwards. So it’s a very positive experience and the same is true when you look at the job domain. You know it’s very exciting to get a first professional job, not just something that earns you some money but you have a degree coming out of college and now you get this first wonderful job, and you are very excited. It’s often a positive experience. But it does take some adjustment. It’s a new environment. You have to report to people, you have to do things you have never done before, and so it does take a lot of adjustment. And again both, in terms of marriage or in terms of your job or your occupation, there will be that outcome variable you know, either will stay healthy or get healthier, a marital partner if the marriage works well, will help each other stay healthy and well. But if things don’t turn out so well, this will have a toll on your physical and and certainly your mental health. So these are good examples of what turns out to be typically positive experiences but does take a lot of adaptation, developmental adaptation over time.


Alex Bishop (9:36)

Thank you for clarifying that. That’s great. Now your key, you mentioned your key area of research is longevity, and  particularly living, to surviving to a hundred. The centenarians in the world that we often hear about. Can you share with us, essentially, what are some of the processes I think you’ve noted in the past in some of your work, psychosocial resources are really important. What is a psychosocial resource and which resources allow people to live to a hundred? To make it?



Peter Martin

I think that’s a central question that gets us to the secret of longevity, right? That’s right,  what’s the secret to making it to a hundred? What it is, I would say, are psychosocial resources and  the term psychosocial does contain two different parts. Psycho: psychological aspect, and then the social aspect. Of course there are also biological aspects that are important but I’m not a biologist so I’ll leave that to my colleagues to figure out what the genetic and the biological components are. But focusing on the behavioral and psychosocial parts of it, basically what that entails is aspects of personality. We know from our work and from other people’s work that there is a certain personality configuration that does help you to survive and to survive in better health. It basically boils down to being an emotionally stable person to be more extroverted outgoing rather than to be withdrawn. To be open to new experiences that you might have. Be conscientious in what you do and to be mostly agreeable with other people. And so actually we have talked about this as a resilience pattern in some of our work. So that’s sort of an individual resource. That is something you can count on to help you move through your life. And most people don’t change their personality. We wouldn’t want people to change their personality every week or every month because it would be less predictable for us and for the people around us to see a different person every time. So that is sort of a resource we can count on that will help us move throughout the lifespan. Particularly if you have this more optimal way of personality configurations. So that’s the psychological resource part and we know that that plays a major role. But there are also other psychological individual components and individual resources. Your spirituality or religiosity, sort of the way in which you focus on what’s important in life. Finding your purpose in life. All of these are things that you do yourself, of course in some cases for the health of others, but that’s internal and really comes to longevity from the psychological perspective.


But then there also is the social component that’s very very important. I very often say, and I learned this from our centenarians, you most likely cannot make it to a hundred on your own. You need people around you. And you need that social buffer, the support that you need. People who guide you, who reinforce you that you do well, that you do something meaningful in life. You cannot only decide that on your own. Other people need to tell you this, and those who have a strong support system are more likely to do well physically again and also mentally. And of course those aspects are important for survivorship. And so the social aspects are tremendously important. Tony Antonoucci talks about the social convoy which indicates that you have to have people who accompany you along the lifespan. And of course as you get closer to a hundred you unfortunately lose a lot of that support system. It isn’t important that you have lots of people around you. The more is not necessarily the better. But there have to be at least a few people you can count on when you need help. That certainly becomes more important when you get into your eighties and nineties and perhaps you need some help maybe with your activities of daily living or maybe with your finances that you can count on somebody who will help you, who will be there for you, as you probably have been there for other people too. And then finally, part of our cluster of psychosocial resources is also what we call economic resources or, in the broader sense, environmental support. It is much easier, clearly, to make it to a hundred if you have economic resources. If you can buy the healthcare that you need, if you can afford at least the basics of life. You don’t have to go overboard but certainly, you know, sort of the basics of economic support is very very important too. And so we’ve also, in the past, really focused on that as well.



Alex Bishop (14:33)

Now across the years of research, the decades you’ve been involved, what is that one discovery from your work, or finding that has probably, would you think, intrigued you the most? Or perhaps even advanced the field of gerontology or longevity science in ways that you thought, you never expected? You never really anticipated?



Peter Martin

Yeah that’s, that’s not easy to say because there are so many surprises that come along the way that you don’t necessarily expect. But if I had to pick one  I would perhaps say that it is the different pathways that people take to make it from sixty to eighty, from eighty to a hundred, or throughout their lifespan. Or what we call our individual differences. I’m often asked ‘What is that one secret of longevity?’ ‘What is it that I have to do?’ And I don’t think there’s an answer to this because there’s probably not one thing. I mean you hear people talk about it’s the red wine, or it’s the chocolate, or it’s eating vegetables. It’s not smoking. And all those are certainly part of the puzzle. But I can’t say that just not smoking gets you to a hundred. Ok? It’s much more complex than that but it’s also highly individualized. The many centenarians that I have interviewed and my team has interviewed over the years I think has clearly shown that everybody sort of has their own recipe of how they get up that mountain. And what is important for you may not be the same as what’s important for somebody else. So I’m beginning to think more, that if people want to live a long and healthy life they need to figure out ‘What is the weak link in my life?’ So maybe for some person it is that social support that I talked about. Whereas others they don’t need to think much about it; they have it. They don’t have to worry about it. But maybe ‘I’m just more um, reserved, and I don’t interact easily with other people. But if this is really important for me then maybe I need to work harder on that.’ And for somebody else it might be nutrition. Maybe I’m more vulnerable to get cardiovascular disease, and so I need to be conscious that I exercise, that I eat the right things. But you know for another person who has a sort of robust physical disposition maybe that’s not so important. I mean it’s important for all of us but what I’m just saying is we need to kind of find out where’s our weak link? And that’s true not just to make it to a hundred.


I think that’s true for all of us throughout our lives, is we do so well in many things but there’s always one thing, maybe more than one, where we can do better, right? And so that’s, I think, the message of [NAME] that I didn’t expect. I expected ‘Oh we’ll develop a model, we’ll find out what are the predictors of longevity and then we’ll share that with the broader scientific community.’ We’ve done a lot of that. However, the surprising part of it is that there’s always somebody who speaks up and says ‘Well, I’ve lived to a hundred but that’s not me. I have a different story to tell.” So this highly individualized process of living in different environments, living with different families, having different lifestyles, we know the things that we shouldn’t do but it’s harder to say ‘What is the one thing that you need to do.’ Because I need to know you better. So we talk more about prescriptive longevity. So we’re giving advice in the public to say, you know, tell me what your life is like and what are your strengths and what are your weaknesses and I’ll tell you what you need to do to live a longer life. And maybe that’s the way to go. So individual differences is what I would want to go to.



Alex Bishop (18:25)

And I like that term Prescriptive Longevity, that’s kind of a neat, neat term. And really like you said it goes back to adaptation. Of recognizing the, what is it, the weakest link? Being willing to recognize the weakest link. Well, there’s been a lot of debate, and our course is titled Successful Aging and so there’s always ongoing debate around the concept of successful aging. And I know that you’ve been involved in this debate as well, as editor of Special Issue in the past and just in general in some of the work you’ve done. What is your perspective regarding Rowe and Kahn’s framework of successful aging, and how do you define it? How do you define Successful Aging?



Peter Martin

Thank you for the question. I actually had the wonderful opportunity to work with Robert Kahn and to some extent with Jack Rowe in the past and I think they’ve done us a great service in bringing up an issue that’s become so popular and that really brings out the positive aspects of aging. That’s really what they meant to do. I know there’s some controversies about ‘So if you are not successful, are you a failure?’ They never meant to really have this, what they call, this false dichotomy of you’re either one or the other. It surely is a continuum. But for so many years the field of gerontology focused, it still does to some extent, on the things that can go wrong. And rightly so, you know, your physical health might be declining. People might be lonely and depressed, et cetera, but that’s not the whole story. And they really did us, I think, a great service in telling us there’s also a positive side and that’s what we ought to be looking for. And so as I’m sure people know who study gerontology there are these three components of physical health: optimizing physical health, functional and cognitive health, and then social engagement and if you do all three of those then you could be seen or defined as a successful ager.


I agree with the critics though, that, well, you know those are sort of objective maybe almost medical prescriptions of saying ‘Well you know, do all these things. You don’t have to come except for regular checkups to the doctor because you’re doing well.” And that sort of, you know, I can tell you if your blood pressure is low, if you are low enough, if you have high enough in terms of cognitive functioning and if you’re involved in the community you will be doing well. What was missing, and I agree and I think Jack Rowe would agree that too, I would agree that the subjective part is missing. That it’s not just somebody telling you you’re doing well depending on the tests that I’ve given you. But what do you think? Do you think you are successful or not? So success is in the eye of the beholder. And we’ve certainly done some studies that indicated, it’s not just the physical health as noted by a physician but your own rating of physical health. We have a lot of centenarians who have some impairments, but they still say their health is excellent or at least good. And how can this be? Well it can be because their definition of what they consider good health is a different one than their physician would say. And certainly then they have these psychological components that we shouldn’t leave out so your own happiness, your own life satisfaction, certainly the first discussion about successful aging started with life satisfaction with [NAME] years and years ago. And so that’s an important component too. Some people have brought in the religious and spiritual component. That is important. And then I would add one other final part of the definition other than physical health, cognitive functional health, social engagement, subjective perspectives, the religion and spiritual components, and that should be no surprise after our half hour of talking here, and that’s the lifespan. We often sort of think about successful aging as being in the moment: how you are now. But if you are sixty or eighty or a hundred, whatever age you are, you have a certain number of years of life that you bring with you. And that’s success too. So people might not be in the best of physical health at ninety-nine or ninety-five, maybe they’re even a bit lonely in some cases, but they can still talk about their family their children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren. They can talk about the job that they had and what contribution they have made to society in many cases. So there’s lots of areas, the travels that they have done. So maybe I can’t travel today anymore, in very late life, but I have those memories of my trips that I have taken. So in our discussions and our talks with many very old people who one would, with Rowe and Kahn’s definition consider not to be successful because they are not as healthy as a forty-year-old, we have seen many fascinating stories that they tell us about their lives that tells me Yes this has been a successful life. I have enjoyed life, I have no regrets. Maybe I would have done a few things, I would do things a little bit differently today, but on the whole I had a wonderful wife or husband, I had great kids, not true for everybody, that’s true too, but maybe they find their fulfillment in other areas. So really, successful aging is the process. It’s not successful age. It’s successful aging. So it’s over the entire lifespan and it is the goal to have a fulfilled life rather than to have a checklist of things in terms of physical or mental or cognitive health.



Alex Bishop (24:26)

I appreciate those insights. It looks like, almost like a narrative. You have the narrative of life to think about and look back upon and really, like you said, maybe life wasn’t perfect but there’s something you can hook on to and say ‘That’s what I did well, certainly.’



Peter Martin

Well I think we over the lifespan create those experiences. This is still in our control. It’s not that I was lucky to have done a lot of great things in life. But it is under our control to create certain events that make us successful over time. And this happens not at eighty or ninety or a hundred. This happens for young adults, students, for people at midlife when people are already saying ‘Well, I want that experience. I want, this has been meaningful to me.’ And again, it goes back to developmental adaptation. You know, you have these experiences and then how do you deal with them? How do you adjust to them. And some people have some very difficult, even traumatic experiences that we’ve talked about, but very often I do hear that they say ‘You know it was the toughest time in my life. I don’t ever want to experience that again. But I have so much grown as a person in experiencing and working through these kinds of experiences that yes it was tough, but I’m not sure I’d want to miss it because it’s part of me. It’s part of who I am today.’ All of that, in my book, is successful aging.



Alex Bishop

Well I appreciate your time and for sharing your responses to the questions.



Peter Martin

It’s been my pleasure.




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