Feature Article

President's message

“The times they are a-changin'” (Bob Dylan): The new president states his initiatives.

By Manfred Diehl, PhD

This first column as president of Div. 20 gives me the opportunity to reflect about the challenges and opportunities for our division and to muse about what I see as critical steps forward. However, before I get into those details, I would like to thank several individuals who were instrumental for a successful program at the 2016 APA Annual Convention in Denver.

First and foremost, I want to thank Walter Boot and Kathie Judge for putting together a successful program. Second, I want to thank Harvey Sterns and Sara Czaja for gently introducing me to my new role as president of Div. 20 over the past year. Third, I want to thank Pat Parmelee and Warner Schaie for representing Div. 20 on APA Council. And finally, I want to thank all of the members on the executive committee for the outstanding work they have been doing and for their commitment to do excellent work in the coming year. I am extremely grateful for your support, and I look forward to a productive year for Div. 20.

I believe it is fair to say that the topic of development across the adult life span and into old age has come a long way and is definitely not a niche topic anymore. Regular readers of the New York Times, for example, may have observed that the Science Times section, which is published on Tuesdays, almost every week covers an aging-related topic. These topics range from the predictive relevance (or lack thereof) of biomarkers for Alzheimer's disease to the effects of physical exercise on physical and mental health to the trials and tribulations of family caregivers of older adults. Just this simple observation suggests a greater public awareness that our society has become an “aging society” and that this is a global phenomenon.

However, this awareness alone does not automatically translate into a more balanced and realistic view on adult development and aging. Regrettably, the public's views on aging still tend to be uninformed by the research that most of us do and tend to be mostly negative. This state of affairs recently has been described in a report titled "Gauging Aging: Mapping the Gaps between Expert and Public Understandings of Aging in America" (2015).

According to this report, most adults think of growing old(er) as “a process of deterioration, dependency, reduced potential, family dispersal and digital incompetence” (p. 6). Changes that happen with aging primarily are seen as being negative, not amenable to intervention and irreversible once they have occurred. In stark contrast to these views, researchers emphasize that aging is a lifelong and cumulative process, is distinct from disease and decline and comes with challenges and opportunities. Indeed, experts' views on aging make it clear that with the right contextual and social support, a majority of older adults can remain fairly healthy or manage chronic health conditions effectively to maintain high levels of functioning and independence.

Clearly, this discrepancy between the public's views and experts' views suggests that not all is well and that we need to do a better job in disseminating the findings from our research. Although I understand and respect that good scientists tend to be hesitant to publicize their findings beyond peer-reviewed journals and through popular outlets, because it always can be questioned how robust the currently available evidence is, I also think that we owe the public critical, yet understandable, reports about the state of our field and about our collective efforts to optimize healthy aging.

A good example for such a report, in my opinion, is the consensus statement on the brain training industry that was published in October 2014 and was signed by the leading cognitive aging researchers and neuroscientists in the world. This consensus statement, which was coordinated by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development, illustrates convincingly that there is a reasonable scientific foundation to talk about plasticity in cognitive aging, but it also deals critically with the claims made by an industry that tries to sell products whose efficacy, especially long-term efficacy, has not been sufficiently established based on rigorous and state-of-the-art research studies.

Thus, although it is essential to be scientifically sound and ethical in the way in which we disseminate our research findings, it also seems to be a good time to consider carefully in which areas we may be able to contribute in constructive ways to the public debate about healthy aging. Although in many areas a great deal of research still needs to be done to permit reliable conclusions, at this point in time we probably can agree that the extent of biological and behavioral plasticity in humans across the adult life span and into old age has been underestimated for a long time, and mostly negative views have prevailed.

I also believe that it is fair to say that this statement applies to relatively healthy individuals and to individuals who are motivated to engage in behaviors, such as engagement in physical activity, that are known to promote healthy aging. It is this background and the recognition that healthy aging is a public health issue in the same way as cardiovascular disease or cancer prevention are public health issues that have led me to the three initiatives that I have chosen to pursue during my term as president of Div. 20. These three initiatives are:

  • Motivating behavior change to promote healthy aging.
  • Changing negative views on aging and counteracting ageism.
  • Translating findings from psychological research on adult development and aging to inform the public and other professions.

I invite each and every member and student member of Div. 20 to join me in enriching these initiatives with their contributions and moving them forward. I know that this is only a start and that it requires a concerted and collective effort to create lasting effects. However, I am convinced that the time has come to pursue these initiatives and that Div. 20 can play a critical role in their realization. I am also committed to work closely with the Committee on Aging (CONA) of APA, directed by Debbie DiGilio, on these initiatives. I believe CONA is a critically important partner of Div. 20 because its members engage in a great deal of advocacy work in Washington, D.C., and with important organizations, such as the National Institute on Aging.

I look forward to my year as acting president of Div. 20. Div. 20 has been a professional home for me for over two decades, and I look forward to building on the successes of the division and my predecessors to promote our work within and outside of APA.