Ursula Staudinger

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Ursula Staudinger headshot, showing a smiling woman with red glasses and a red blouse.
Ursula Staudinger, Rector, Technische Universität Dresden | Professor of Interdisciplinary Aging Science. Image used with permission.

Alex Bishop

I want to welcome Dr. Ursula Staudinger. She is a professor of interdisciplinary and aging science and rector at Dresden University of Technology over in Germany. Dresden, Germany. Dr. Staudinger is a very much accomplished lifespan psychologist and I would also consider you a gerontologist, having read your work. Can you share a little bit about yourself, including perhaps past/current career, position, research interests, and really, how did you become interested in lifespan development or even gerontology or aging for that matter, or how did it find you?



Ursula Staudinger

Alright, so before I came here two years ago to become the CEO of Dresden University of Technology I was for eight years at Columbia University and I was the inaugural director of the the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center and had a professorship in social medical sciences and psychology there. And before that I headed an interdisciplinary center on lifelong learning and institutional development at Jacob’s University in Bremen. I was there for ten years. And so basically, what’s the common denominator between all of these earlier positions? I mean, right now I’m not doing any research anymore because I have too many responsibilities as a president. But the common denominator, really, is that in order to understand how human beings develop across the lifespan you need to bring together many many different disciplines. Otherwise we always fall short to really understand the complexities of our species.


And the minimal effort you have to make is to bring in biology and neurosciences together with the behavioral sciences, i.e.  psychology and sociology, to cover the context. And environmental sciences more and more as we learn about the objective impact of the physical environment on our developmental pathways. Very important, within sociology, is to understand the educational biographies from the beginning to the end including further training efforts. But also sociology is to understand the work biography and that has been, then, very important in my work to study how the environment, the context of work—paid work— impacts on people’s development during adulthood and into old age, as we expose ourselves for quite a number of hours every day across many many weeks every year and across many many years as we all know. And honestly, we have not enough knowledge about the cumulative effects of these environments on our development. So anyway, coming back to the beginning. So this is what characterizes my approach.


And, how did I get there? Really, I was, in my Master’s thesis I got interested in how life experience accumulates in some people and doesn’t in others, and to better understand why that is and how it happens. I was then able to receive a fellowship from the Max Planck society to do Ph.D. work in that area in Berlin at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. And together with Paul Balthus studied the notion of wisdom as one label that has been used to understand the accumulation of insight into life. And that really was, for me, the start into this highly complex field. And really after my Ph.D. I was very much excited about moving beyond psychology as such.


Alex Bishop (4:08)

That’s very interesting. You have a very complex career. Very dynamic. It’s amazing how it’s taken you in life. Now you talked about work as being a large part, and an important part, of your work that you’ve done. And that seems to be a very important topic currently. And it’s a large part, and important part, of human living, growth, and development. Some persons might pose the question: “Why work?” What are the benefits, in aging, to work? Going to work and working, and the experience of work?



Ursula Staudinger

So the issue is not so much only about benefits. It’s really to understand which characteristics of work environments impact human beings in their development and aging processes. And they can be positive and negative. And so, in particular, the cumulative effect. So we need to have systematic longitudinal studies in the work setting, i.e. in a company, in an office, in a public administration setting, whatever. You name it. And that’s really difficult. And so there’s very little systematic longitudinal evidence available. However, we do know from one field of aging studies which is the most accomplished, I would say, because it has the longest track record, and that is cognitive development and aging. It dates back to our understanding of human intelligence way back in the 1950’s-1960’s. And so the paradigms are very established and the measurement reliability is very high and so we have started using this type of paradigm to understand the work effects on cognitive aging.


And so what we noticed, to cut a long story short, is if the human brain is exposed to much sameness across years and decades, it’s detrimental to its aging process. And the more challenges our brain experiences every day irrespective of the level of intelligence…at each level of intelligence we can experience challenges to our cognitive functioning. And if we do not experience those challenges our brain, really, “goes to sleep.” And it’s actually aging before their time, if you wish. And also in the pathology realm it has been established now that cognitive challenges and novelty, novelty processing, as I’ve come to call it, is protective against pathology which often comes age-related.


So that is an enormous impact. But of course also, work also has impact on our personality development and depending on our responsibilities at work, whether we have to deal with other people, or whether we have to plan systematically and so forth. Of course this imprints itself on how our personality goes through our lives and hopefully we would think that there’s a pre-selection so that certain personalities choose certain types of professions that are already in sync with their personality, identity, and so forth. But not always is this the case. So also in personality, functioning and personality development, we see impact. And it’s not even necessary to mention that our social relations are heavily ingrained with our, and interlinked with, our work environment and people who lose, or step out of, their work context experience this painfully: That quite a number of their social contacts, their everyday social contacts, are gone. And it’s very laborsome to reconstruct those and find substitutes for it and keep ourselves busy.


And again, social contacts, social relations is one of the most protective factors we can have in our cognitive aging because it is a complex thing in and of itself: To synchronize with another human being, to understand what the person wants to tell me, and then figure it out in my brain what I want to answer and how do I react. It involves hearing, it involves visual functioning, so it’s a very complex thing. And if we get less of that it’s less of a training effect on our brain.



Alex Bishop (9:01)

A lot of our students are very interested in this concept of work life balance. What would you suggest, or recommend that they do, to achieve a positive balance in their work life so that they can age positively?



Ursula Staudinger

So the work life balance, of course, is important. Where the balance strikes really varies between people. People have different preferences and priorities in their lives so it’s not one size fits all. That’s the first thing which is, by the way, a general rule when it comes to aging. It’s not one size fits all. We become more and more different from each other as we grow older. And so different ideal pathways emerge. So that’s the first thing. Then the second thing is we have to strike a balance that the stress level that we are exposed to, be it in private life or be it in work life, is so that stress is not overdoing it and we are not hampering our bodily functions because any stress that we experience impacts our metabolism. So we can now show that stress levels…too much stress, negatively experienced stress, has an inflammatory effect in our body which is basically aging more rapidly.


And so this is important, therefore it’s important, to keep it in a balance but as I said before when stress is too much is different from person to person. And in later life I always…the research tells us that it’s really important that also in your private life whatever it is, whether it’s family or whatever, you choose to spend your time with, make sure that there’s some novelty there. So you have to ensure that you engage your brain again and again and the other thing is that I think we have to have a sense of, after retirement, we need to continue to have a sense of purpose.


And we gain a sense of purpose when we make a commitment. And when our commitment is viewed by other people. So we become visible with our commitment and our contributions, whatever they are, but if we do not make that commitment, if we feel like ‘Oh now I’m fancy-free and I can do what I would like and I don’t want to make a commitment because I’m not at work anymore,’ it may not be the wisest choice in the long run.



Alex Bishop (11:56)

That makes perfect sense. Now you talk about work, and you talk about wisdom, and the impact on cognition, how is this connected to plasticity? I know that you’ve talked a little bit in your work about plasticity of the brain and just the whole idea of plasticity in development.



Ursula Staudinger

Yeah, exactly. So the latter is my topic, yes. Plasticity of the brain is one facet as I told you before. It’s studied heavily because we know what we’re doing there, to cut it short. But it’s really plasticity of human development and in aging that is so fascinating. All the different dimensions of it. And I think it’s the strength of our species that we can use this plasticity that evolution has built into us as a species to adapt to new environments. To find better ways, to find our trajectories in new environments, with new challenges, and the modifiability of our pathways is so important for individuals to realize, that we are not prisoners to our genes.


The evidence shows that it’s about twenty percent of the genetic impact on the variability of longevity. It’s only twenty percent. And the rest has to do with contextual variation, with individual variation of different people making different choices and having different outlooks on life. So we really need to make use of this modifiability or plasticity.


And this also concerns people who take on responsibility to create environments for others. Whether that is employers or whether that is educational principals or whether that is our community leaders or our state leaders. They need to be aware that what they create, with legislation and other measures, has immediate impact, cumulative impact, on the people exposed to these environments. And so it’s really very crucial to bring that, to drive that story home so that people really embrace it.



Alex Bishop (14:24)

I’m glad you mentioned that because it’s very important currently, too. Now across your career, what is one key discovery or finding that has intrigued you the most or that you think has helped advance the field in a way that has been very positive?



Ursula Staudinger

I think it’s two pieces. One piece that’s really close to my heart is the novelty-processing aspect which we have discovered in basically the last five to ten years, I would say, and have accumulated evidence to support it and hopefully convince people that it is so important to make sure that this takes place.


And the other aspect is the notion of resilience and how we apply resilience across the lifespan and not…the concept was created and was born to study “invulnerable youth” who came out of broken homes and very difficult environments and nevertheless flourished. And I took this concept and used it to understand lifespan development and how in adulthood and even old age and very old age this is an important notion to understand. Because resilience takes place out of a constellation of resources that a person has available, and the challenges that person is facing in his or her life, whether it is physical challenges or contextual challenges. And to have this conceptualization makes it so obvious that we need to be concerned about these resources. And as a state, as a community, as individuals, and I think that’s really crucial.


And maybe the third thing is the central discovery, together with Paul Balthus and our team, was really to show that it’s not enough to grow older, to become wiser. Because it’s one of the big positive stereotypes of old age, and so it’s very hard to debunk, but I think we’ve accumulated huge evidence that shows that is the case.



Alex Bishop (16:54)

Absolutely. Well a final question for you, and a key focus of this course and the book that we’re creating, is this whole concept of successful aging. And I’ve been asking everyone that I’ve interviewed, how do you define successful aging? What’s your perspective on this concept?



Ursula Staudinger

Well, I mean, the first part of course is that people need to be aware of the extensive literature that has criticized the notion of successful in conjunction with the aging process. And I share that criticism because successful is a term that is often used in economic circumstances and it is very materialistically defined. And of course when we speak about human aging this is a more comprehensive notion that we would like to address. Yes, financial success is important. Of course we would like to have some degrees of freedom, how we create our old age, but it’s only one aspect and with this notion of successful aging it may be reduced to it. But having said this I think it’s a good working title and I think what’s important in my definition is the multi-facetedness of it.


And the same way as I described before, complexity, the same is true for when you try to optimize and understand the best possible trajectory. We need to consider the physical part of it: how successful is the physical trajectory. But then we need to also look at the educational trajectory, the work trajectory, a trajectory of purpose in life is, I think, really crucial. And this may be very different things for different people. I guess these are amongst the four important ones.




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