Germany

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)
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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