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Inaugural address Yvonne Brehmer: What is successful aging?

Published: 13th September 2019 Last updated: 13th September 2019

September 13, Professor Yvonne Brehmer will present her inaugural speech on successful aging and how her previous and planned research is related to it. So far, Brehmers research has mainly focused on basic experimental memory research, which includes age-comparative studies with healthy older adults. Important questions are: What is successful aging? How can successful aging be reached by each and every individual? How much is aging successfully a challenge for the individual and/or society?

Aging is the strongest risk factor for multimorbidity, which is defined as the simultaneous presence of two or more chronic diseases and many neurodegenerative disorders, the most prominent one being dementia. In both men and women, the number of chronic diseases increased with age. More than 30 percent of the older adults aged 90 years and older experienced seven or more chronic diseases.

Differences

But ‘older adults’ are not a homogenous group, so the aging process needs to be viewed differentially. Even among individuals of the same age, certain individuals are still cognitively and physical flexible and active, while others show early signs of cognitive and physical impairments.

We often speak about older adults in a stereotypic and negative way, and rate the process of aging as universal and homogenous, neglecting the multidimensionality and multi-directionality of the aging process and the variability among older adults. Importantly, research on older adults more often highlights their cognitive, psychological and social potential. One line of Brehmers previous research concerns the ability of older adults to improve memory performance through instruction and training. This indicates that old age is not only characterized by cognitive decline but that older adults also have the potential to learn new techniques and to improve their memory functioning through training.

Episodic memory

Much of Brehmers research has been conducted in the domain of episodic memory, which refers to the conscious remembrance of events situated in time and place. Episodic memory functioning declines in older age in general. But while older adults show no or only minor age-related reductions in memory for single items (e.g., faces, names), their memory for associations (e.g., face-name pairs) is markedly reduced in comparison to younger adults. Beyond the average pattern of age-related associative memory decline, individuals of the same age differ markedly in their memory performance. In all Brehmers studies, huge inter-individual differences have been observed in memory functioning as well as in how much individuals gain from cognitive interventions.

Well-being paradox

Despite the challenges related to old age, cross-sectional as well as longitudinal research shows an increase in well-being and life satisfaction in old age, a phenomenon called the ‘well-being paradox’. This means that even though older adults experience many losses, their well-being is often high. This increase in well-being seems to depend less on an increase in positive emotions and more on decrease in negative emotions. It has been shown that older adults experience less anger, less stress and worries, while happiness and enjoyment are relatively stable in comparison to other periods of the lifespan. Empirical studies showed that this drastic reduction in negative emotions of older adults compared to younger adults was based on older adults moving out of negative emotional states faster, being less emotionally reactive to stressors, engaging less in destructive conflict strategies and finding tense interpersonal situations less stressful.

The fact that (a) societies are aging worldwide and (b) the interaction between physical, mental and societal challenges and the ability to learn and to deal with these challenges makes this phase of the lifespan not only an interesting research topic but also a relevant one. The huge between-person differences in how people age and deal with age-related challenges are of specific interest.

Future research

In future research Brehmer would like to link classical experimental cognitive interventions to traditional indicators of successful aging. Specific research questions are:

(a) How do subjective factors (self-beliefs, emotion-regulation, motivation, personality) influence inter-individual differences in training gains?

(b) Do subjective versus objective memory restrictions influence whether and how much individuals gain from cognitive training? and

(c) Is it possible to generalize cognitively or subjectively experienced training gains to non-cognitive measures (e.g., subjective well-being, self-esteem, motivation, openness to new experiences, increase in leisure activities).

Prof. dr. Yvonne Brehmer (1977) is full professor of Successful Aging in the Department of Developmental Psychology at the Tilburg School of Social and Behavioral Sciences since September 2018.  She studied Psychology at Saarland University, Germany. She completed her PhD entitled Episodic Memory Plasticity Across the Lifespan at Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin in 2006. After her post-doctoral work at the Aging Research Center, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, Yvonne established her own independent research group in Berlin in late 2012. From September 2017, Yvonne worked as senior lecturer focusing on the psychology of aging at Gothenburg University, Sweden.

Further information

Yvonne Brehmer will give her inaugural address, entitled ‘Successful Aging: Individual and Societal Challenges’, at the auditorium of Tilburg University, September 13, 16.00 hrs. The speech (PDF) is available on request at the press office of Tilburg University. E: persvoorlichters@tilburguniversity.edu or T: +31 13 466 4000. Prof. dr. Yvonne Brehmer can be reached via E: Y.Brehmer@tilburguniversity.edu or T: +31 13 466 4225