How old should we start dating

Clemens Tesch-Römer in an interview about aging

At the greeting, Professor Clemens Tesch-Römer said that he wasn't really prepared, that he almost canceled the conversation because he actually didn't have time. There would be an appointment in Brussels, some kind of conference, and then his institute would also celebrate its 40th birthday: the German Center for Aging Issues (DZA), whose task, according to the statutes, is to "expand knowledge about the living situation of aging and old people, to collect, evaluate, process and disseminate, so that this knowledge can be used with a view to the societal and socio-political challenges associated with the aging of the population in the sense of scientifically independent political advice ”.

The Berlin institute, which is funded by the Federal Ministry for Family, Seniors, Women and Youth, is the most important research institution in its field today. The German Age Survey, a nationwide representative survey among people “in the second half of life”, that is over 40, made a good contribution to this.

Clemens Tesch-Römer himself belongs to this age group: The psychologist is 57 years old, but looks younger. At the comment that the topics of age and aging seemed all the more puzzling, the more you read about them, he just nodded: Yes, that is probably the case.

When are you actually old?

There is no general rule for this. In professional football you are 35 and over, in politics many people only reach their prime after 50. If you want to know in surveys from people when they think someone is old, most of them say: at the end of 70. Age research is often about people over 65. Actually, it's about the retirement age - so we orient ourselves to that a social transition. This approach comes from sociology and defines the phases of life through working life: youth ends when we start to work, old age begins when we stop.

That seems relatively arbitrary.

It is, but for practical questions it can be useful to set age limits. For the European Union, for example, 55 to 64-year-olds are considered older workers and are therefore perceived in a special way by labor and social policy. But beware!

One might think that at this age the performance declines. But if you take a closer look, you will find that there is almost no connection between performance and age in professional life: it may be that the individual is no longer as fast or as strong as before, but the greater experience is usually the same out.

But at some point it will start to decline. And then you're old, right?

We shouldn't equate being old with decay, that doesn't do justice to the living situation of many older and old people. It is true that the likelihood of suffering from several, often chronic diseases increases with age. But there are also very old people who are quite healthy. In addition, health and life expectancy have improved enormously over the past few decades. It used to be said that people cannot live to be older than 70 on average, then we were 75, 80 ... In Germany we are approaching 90 years.

James Vaupel, the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, has looked at the development of life expectancy over the 20th century and found that there is a linear increase - estimates for a maximum mean life expectancy have been and will be again and again exceeded.

Is that so surprising? There have always been people who are getting older than everyone else, starting with Methuselah.

Sure, but these were exceptions. That old age is a mass phenomenon, that we in developed countries have a good chance of being 75, 80 or 85 years old: this is new. And that has not yet reached the consciousness of many people.
I also teach psychology. And when I tell my students that half of you have a good chance of turning 100, you realize that nobody knows what that really means.

What are the factors that explain the enormous increase?

It is a great social success. On average, people are doing better economically, there has been progress with diagnostics and medical treatment, working conditions have improved and we are living healthier lives. Up until the Second World War, all of this led to a decrease in infant mortality, after which it led to an extension of the second half of life, that is, years gained in old age.

What actually determines how old we get? It is often said that good genes are crucial.

There are two approaches to explaining aging in biology. The geneticists say: There must be a programming in us that ensures that we get as old as we get. Because why don't we turn 200? Or 300?

On the other hand, biology also shows that life is dangerous - every metabolism produces substances that damage the body, the so-called free radicals. If the metabolism is reduced, there are also fewer free radicals. Animal experiments have also repeatedly shown that life expectancy increases when the metabolism is reduced. But environmental influences also play an important role.

So it's true: thin people live longer than fat people?

On the one hand. But there are other factors. We know, for example, that people with a higher social status live longer because they know more about healthy lifestyles, are less stressed, get more relaxation and better medical care.

But if we look at the upper middle class in a rich country like Germany, whose possibilities are no longer so different from those of the upper class, we find that the members of the upper class are still getting older. Obviously, life in the lower levels of a social hierarchy is stressful.

Because you are permanently in a social struggle?

First and foremost, it is important to see and combat the dangers of poverty. But is poverty reduction enough? If everyone in a society has achieved a certain level of prosperity, then everyone should have the same chance of reaching old age. But it is not like that. Hierarchies are stressful - unless you are at the top.

And the person himself - what can the individual do for a good old age?

Start early. But it is never too late to do something for a good old age. Investing early in education still pays off in old age: Well-educated people have better health and a larger network of friends than less-educated people.

But even at the age of 60 or 80 it is still worth doing sports, doing something with others and staying curious. By the way, when you dance you can combine everything: physical exercise, social exchange and cognitive challenge.

Which brings us to the qualities of old age.

At the moment, life expectancy is increasing by a few months every year, but of course you have to ask whether we can use the time we have gained - or whether life increases with illness and the need for care.

Fortunately, the German Age Survey, which we have been carrying out since 1996, shows a very positive picture: Today, more elderly people are healthy and active than before, and the percentage of healthy lives in relation to the total lifetime has also increased. Which, by the way, is also an answer to the frequently asked question: Could people work longer? My answer is yes.

You could - but should you? For a journalist, it is advantageous to be older: you know more and can classify things better. The situation is much worse for an older scaffolding worker.

Sure, there are jobs you can't do until you're 70. In many cases, however, companies in particular have to ask themselves: What can we do so that people can work for us longer? Is further mechanization a help? Are they horizontal careers? For some years now, the demands at work have been much more psychological: insecurity, stress, time pressure ...

Could part-time work be a solution for older people?

The biggest attempt in this area is the partial retirement introduced in 1996. There are two options: With the equal distribution model, working hours are reduced by half and distributed over the entire period of partial retirement. With the block model, you continue to work fully during the first phase and then enter the equally long exemption phase. During all phases you receive your reduced partial retirement salary.

And it has been shown: people want a clear cut. About 90 percent of those affected choose the second option. Quite apart from the fact that new negative age stereotypes arise when you say that you should work part-time from 55 or 60. I have nothing against flexible working hours - they can be useful in all age phases. And not just for the elderly.

Older workers are therefore as productive as younger workers in many areas and often want the same thing. But something has to differentiate young and old.

Of course there are differences. The older we get, the more often we suffer from mostly chronic diseases, for example. And there are other age differences. We know from motivational research that curiosity is a great motivator for younger people, whereas older people are more interested in positive encounters. When asked who they would prefer to meet for dinner, a pop star or a family member, usually only the younger ones choose the pop star. However, this has not so much to do with age as with the distance to an approaching end: If you tell the younger ones that they will move to Cape Town the following day, they will also choose the family member.

And what about the flexibility? Old people are supposedly stubborn.

There are actually findings from personality psychology that confirm that the personality becomes a little more rigid with the years. However, we always have to keep in mind that there are great differences between people. In contrast, the age changes in midlife are really only minimal.

Does flexibility help to stay young even in old age?

Fortunately, it is at least partly in your own hands how you get old. I advise younger people to be open, to always start over, to keep learning. And they should think about their health in the long term.

In the age survey, we also ask how often people do sports, not extreme things like boxing or triathlons, but running, cycling, swimming. The result is frightening: Even among 40-year-olds, more than 40 percent do nothing at all! And by the age of 75, the rate increases to 80 percent.

Isn't the brain at least as important? How do you keep that fit?

First of all, the brain is part of the body. Those who keep themselves physically fit also do something for their cognitive performance. Being with other people also encourages us: We listen, think along, plan something. In addition to my favorite example, ballroom dancing, I would also like to mention volunteering here. When you volunteer, you do something for others, but also for yourself. You can start doing that late in life.

Many studies have shown that lively social relationships also improve cognitive performance in older people. Challenging activity is as good for the mind as it is for the body.

So do sports and socialize. Is there anything else that makes us old well?

In addition to a health-conscious diet, there is one more thing that I consider extremely important: our self-image in old age. My former colleague Susanne Wurm, now a professor in Nuremberg, used the age survey to show how important expectations are when it comes to getting older. People with a negative image of old age are less physically active and sicker than people with a positive image of old age.

In short, one could say: We all have ideas about how personally stressful it can be to get old. If you are told that you are now an old person, there is a danger that those ideas will come true. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We can certainly not make ourselves completely free from negative images of old age. But we can already say: I'll try out getting old myself - and do it a little differently.