Sci. Aging Knowl. Environ., 10 October 2001
Vol. 2001, Issue 2, p. vp4
[DOI: 10.1126/sageke.2001.2.vp4]


Realizing Wisdom

S. Jay Olshansky

School of Public Health, University of Illinois, Chicago, and Center on Aging, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA;2001/2/vp4 It was the spring of 1979, and I was sitting in a graduate class given by one of the most famous scientists in the field of gerontology, but all I could think about were topics for my master's thesis on adolescent fertility. I was in a Ph.D. program in sociology at the University of Chicago, and my adviser recommended the course because the professor--Bernice Neugarten--was well known throughout the university.

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"At that exact instant I realized that it might not have been such a good idea to contradict a famous professor so publicly, and I assumed that she was using this moment of hesitation to devise some sort of punishment." [Credit: Argonne National Laboratory]

I was occupying my usual spot--the front row on the right side of the class as you face the instructor. I associate this place with good grades and my usual sense of optimism. Those who know me personally often find me too sanguine, a rather ironic view to those who today associate me with the professional view that we are rapidly approaching the practical upper limits to human life expectancy--at least for the time being. Bernice was talking about her now-famous distinction between young-old and old-old, which mildly interested me at the time. My ears perked up when she stated something that was obviously wrong. There is great heterogeneity among the elderly population, she said, and most scientists and graduate students don't recognize that such diversity exists and how important it is.

My hand snapped up almost uncontrollably, as is often the case when I don't understand something or disagree with what the teacher has said. I stood up and declared that she had apparently made an error, because all old people are alike. First of all, I pointed out, they're all old chronologically--a basic demographic characteristic that cannot be disputed. I continued: People over the age of 65 look old and have a much higher risk of death than the rest of us, and not one of them can be as physically active in old age as we are in our (graduate student) youth. I was 25 years old at the time.

A surprised smirk crept onto Bernice's face. With one eye raised and the smile lines beside her eyes folding into their usual crease, she looked at me intensely for a moment. At that exact instant I realized that it might not have been such a good idea to contradict a famous professor so publicly, and I assumed that she was using this moment of hesitation to devise some sort of punishment. I was wrong. She was concocting a way to use the interaction for teaching both me and the other students a lesson--a lesson that I remember to this day. "Jay," she said, "I have an assignment for you. I'm working on a book about the future of human longevity. I'd like you to write a paper about whether we should be supporting the funding of government research that extends the human life-span."

"Fine," I said, sitting down with relief as the tension in the air dissipated.

That night, like every night I spent as a graduate student, I took the bus to Regenstein Library and camped out in my usual spot in the stacks. Bernice had provided me with a few references to start with, but otherwise, I was on my own. I closed down the library that evening; my interest had been piqued.

By the next week, I was following Bernice's every word. Notes were unnecessary: I was absorbing her lectures like a sponge and, as with my readings about human longevity at the library, I simply couldn't get enough. Although I had anticipated a rather mundane literature about aging, I discovered that questions about why aging occurs and how long we are capable of living have been on the minds of scientists and philosophers for thousands of years. Indeed, all of the major religions have notions of immortality embedded within them in one form or another. I had never realized how fundamental questions about life and death have permeated virtually every aspect of our lives, and I was at once reminded of my own fears about death sown in childhood. Although many researchers had speculated on the prospects for extending the human life-span, not one that I could find had given thought to the demographic consequences of successfully achieving immortality (or at least much longer lives). I immediately saw a place where I might contribute something useful to the topic. Adolescent fertility became the last thing on my mind, having been replaced by the fascinating topics of human aging, longevity, and death.

I finished the paper, which ran 50 pages and contained more than 200 references. This was not only the longest paper I had ever written; it was one of the most detailed treatises that Bernice had ever received from one of her students. I earned an A.

Bernice suggested that I turn the paper into my master's thesis, which I did under the direction of Evelyn Kitagawa (Mrs. K), our University of Chicago and Population Research Center's resident mortality expert. My conclusion? If we succeeded in dramatically extending the human life-span, population growth would rapidly spiral even more out of control and Malthus's predictions of catastrophe would soon come true. I was dead wrong, as the economist Ansley Coale had demonstrated decades earlier, but most people today still believe this prognosis.

It has taken 2 decades for me to read through most of the published research of Bernice and many of the other great thinkers in the field of gerontology, and I'm still not caught up. It wasn't until 1983, at my first job, that I understood just how wrong I had been that day in Bernice's class about the homogeneity of old people. The clarity came when I taught a similar class and found myself exploring the literature that led Bernice to reach her conclusion. The notion of heterogeneity among older people is one of the cornerstones of my thinking about aging and longevity today; where I used to see uniformity to aging, I now see great variation. Chronological age, I've discovered, is less important than either genetics or the way in which we choose to live our lives. This means that people can be chronologically old yet biologically young in some ways--and this, I discovered, is the essence of what Bernice was talking about on that fateful day for me in 1979. Bernice continued as my mentor in my early academic career, and in 1989, I joined the faculty at the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago, where Bernice remained one of the senior members of the department. She reminded me constantly to be a good scholar by reading the historical literature. This lesson about avoiding the rediscovery of the past and appreciating the scholarship of history's great thinkers has led me to my current effort to develop a repository for historical scholarship on aging.

Two decades have passed since that moment with Bernice, and I am now a full professor with tenure in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois, Chicago. I am completely hooked on all of the issues revolving around questions about health, aging, longevity, and death, regardless of whether they originate from the biological or social sciences. I owe a great debt to Bernice Neugarten, the wonderful teacher who sent me down the path to understanding what human aging is all about. I remain a student of aging and longevity to this day, and I am optimistic (perhaps too much so) that science will eventually discover ways to alter the basic rate of aging.

As a lecturer I now anxiously await the moment when a student in one of my classes snaps a hand up in the air at the mention of heterogeneity at older ages. At that instant a smirk will come to my face, the smile lines beside my eyes will fold, and I will take great pleasure in contemplating how to use the moment to pass on the wisdom of Bernice Neugarten.

October 10, 2001

Bernice Neugarten died on 22 July 2001. I will miss her.

Science of Aging Knowledge Environment. ISSN 1539-6150