Almost Everything You Know About Old Age Is Baloney

A new book by German neurobiologist Martin Korte dispels the most common stereotypes about aging. He calls for a "radical reassessment of old age."

Intergenerational dialogue (Fokko Muller)
Michael Holmes

BERLIN - People around the world are getting older and older -- persistently and unstoppably. Life expectancy, median age and the number of older people are increasing in virtually every country.

Those wishing to help shape this demographic trend in a positive, constructive way must understand the specificities of age. But -- like men and women -- the old and the young seem to be from different planets. Well-meant attempts at intergenerational dialogue are often just separate monologues.

In his book Jung im Kopf: Erstaunliche Einsichten der Gehirnforschung in das Aelterwerden (Mentally Young: Brain Research Yields Astonishing Insights into Getting Older), neurobiologist Martin Korte delves into the most common stereotypes about aging, all of which draw a parallel between age and decline. Korte on the other hand sees age like a "complex mountain landscape with valleys and new peaks' and disputes the commonly held notion of life going inexorably downhill after middle age.

He notes that many of the physical and mental manifestations of age are seen in terms of damage, of deficits. And indeed, research confirms that older people learn more slowly, forget more, and are more easily distracted. Korte attributes this to the aging process of the brain -- and opposes a list of positive, age-related changes.

Numerous studies show that top scores for crucial capacities like emotional intelligence, logic and even language ability are only attained later in life. In the first stages of old age, people start to feel more satisfied with life. Also, the elderly have stockpiles of knowledge and experience to help them in social situations.

Korte also claims that they are better equipped to "handle the turbulence of life with more flexibility and stability." Scientists bundle these characteristics of age into a big word that has been associated with age for as long as anyone can remember: wisdom.

The secret to eternal youth

According to Korte, the way and speed at which people age is related not only to genes but also to lifestyle. He provides a catalogue of measures that people can adopt to develop the positive points of old age and reduce the risk of sickness, attaching particular importance to movement; he applauds all forms of physical and mental training. Anything that requires effort and gives pleasure keeps people young, he says.

The neurobiologist also believes that people who value others, life -- and aging -- age more slowly. In one experiment, seniors were placed for a week in an environment where the objects of everyday life, movies, songs, all dated from the 1950s. At the end, doctors examined participants and noted that their general condition had improved significantly. Another long-term study showed that people who view aging positively live seven-and-a-half years longer than people who don't.

Korte worries that many seniors see themselves as "in need of care, dependent, deficient" because they unconsciously adopt society's prejudices about the old -- and as a result "part of the lowered levels of performance in older age" are basically just the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This objective scientist makes an emotional call for society to find the "collective courage to radically re-assess old age." He dreams of a society that gives its older folks neither too much nor too little consideration, and that encourages people to see their whole life in terms of the development of their potential. If young and old lived together more, learnt more from each other and worked together more, an aging society would no longer be brittle, he says; it would be wise.

Read the article in German in Die Welt.

Photo - Fokko Muller

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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