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Friday, September 20, 2013

Busting Negative Stereotypes of Aging: Ursula Staudinger


Ursula Staudinger at Columbia
Ursula Staudinger is among the most innovative thinkers I have met. Ever.
And, as a scientist, she has the data, the research, to support her edgy ideas. Should they catch on, her vision could upend the way we view our most experienced and least appreciated workers.
That would be older adults.

Here are some widely held myths Staudinger busted recently at a seminar at Columbia University, where she heads its multidisciplinary Aging Center:

*Older workers are less productive. Not true. Research shows that while older workers may lose speed in certain tasks, they also gain accuracy. Teams made up of people of mixed of ages, including older adults, have proven more adept at certain projects, particularly engineering.
Check out this video about VitaNeedle, a manufacturing company in Needham, MA,  from PBS. At VitaNeedle, the average age of workers is 74. It has earned record profits in 18 of the last 20 years, thanks to its many older part-time workers, whose loyalty and competence are rewarded with flex time and a sense of purpose.
Another study --  of an auto plant -- concluded that older workers “are especially able to grasp difficult situations and then concentrate on the vital tasks.”  While they may have made a few more errors, their long experience made them less likely to make serious errors.
*A person’s chronological age is highly informative.  That’s a myth, too.  For shock value, Staudinger, speaking at the university's Age Boom Academy, showed the Albert Durer drawing, “Mother,” from 1514. At the time, the mom was 63. A very old 63. Not like the 63 of many today.
"Mother" at 63, by Durer
Chronological age is not biological age, Staudinger reminds, and even that varies with all kinds of things, including genetics and life experience. She cited the work of James Vaupel and others to show that while humans are living longer, they are also living a longer stretch of their lives in better health and that the stimulation of work can play a role.
Since the 1950s, she said, cognitive ability (which, for the most part, does decline with age) has increased as education, early nutrition and other variables have had an impact – a trend known as the “Flynn effect.” Among older people, aerobic fitness, among other activities, appears to play a role in activating the brain to build neuron connections. “We can move the cognitive curve,” Staudinger said.

*Older employees have difficulty learning new things. Not always true. Although older workers may not learn a brand new skill as quickly as younger ones, they beat the kids when it comes to learning a new skill related to their long years of experience. “What’s clear is that we need to be exposed to new challenges regularly or our brain goes to rest. Good bye,” she said.

So why, in recent decades -- as we are living longer -- have we been retiring earlier? And  “what does that tell us about the meaning of work?” Staudinger asked.
The ability to retire earlier was seen “as a big cultural achievement,” she said. But what is really known about the relationship of work to health? And under what conditions?

“Should  [our cultural attitudes] change now that we are living longer?”  A survey of older adults working at a particular company found that a large proportion of those still working were looking forward to leaving. But 85 percent of those retired from the company for a year wanted to return to work – maybe with fewer hours and more autonomy, but working nonetheless.
“It’s very hard to establish the value of work before we lose it,” Staudinger said. It offers social connections, a structure to the day, a routine. “The utility of work only gets graspable once you don’t have it.”

As the research of Staudinger and others continues to reveal the strengths of older workers, will a more positive image of aging take hold? Will what she calls “age smart companies” emerge  (as they are beginning to in Europe) to take advantage of this workforce?

And are national social policies and financial incentives needed to make this happen? For instance, if older workers’ first insurance was Medicare and not a company’s private insurance, would that firm be more likely to retain older workers,  rather than treating them as an increasing financial liability? And if those workers were offered the flexibility many desire, could that benefit younger workers seeking employment?  
 “For such fundamental change,” Staudinger concludes, “the individual is too burdened to accomplish it. There’s need for institutional help and support.”

Here are additional readings on the issue of aging and health:

"How Cardiovascular and Coordination Training Improve Cognition in Older Adults"



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