Founding USC Davis School of Gerontology dean James E. Birren is honored on his 90th birthday

Click here to read an article about Jim Birren's 90th Birthday celebratory event that the Emeriti Center planned, organized, and executed with the Andrus School of Gerontology. Not mentioned in the article: Jim donated $100,000 to the Davis School for an Autobiographical Studies Program. 


Annotated Bibliography

In 2008 Jim Birren created a complete Bibliography of Autobiography, Memoir and Reminiscence Literature For Use by Scholars, Students and Practitioners. Click here to access the document.  


Age Doesn’t Cause Anything: It is a Convenient Index to Many Causes

USC Davis School of Gerontology Commencement speech by James E. Birren
May 14, 2010

I want to thank the students who have asked me many powerful questions. Asking good questions is part of good education in Gerontology as it is in other fields. I also want to thank my colleagues here in Gerontology who have provided me with good answers.

I would like to bring up two basic issues. One is the out of date paradigms or models we carry forward from the past that new evidence suggests are no longer valid. The second point is that age doesn’t cause anything. It is an index to the effects of causal factors that influence life expectancy, health, and well-being.  

Early in my career when I was at the National Institute of Health I became aware of some of the out of date models we carry forward. One big influence was the advances made in the early half of the 20th Century in the control of infectious diseases. It led to a focus on single important causes and not about growing older that has many factors and interactions.

When I was at the National Institute of Mental Health in about 1962, Robert Butler and I suggested that a laboratory for the study of mental health and aging be established. The senior staff turned it down. We assumed that it was psychoanalytic dominance that that led to its being turned down because the first years of life were viewed as much more important. Early life and single dominant causes were the focus. Later I moved to the newly created National Institute of Child Health and Human Development where a major division was to be devoted to research on aging. In 1964 the director asked me to suggest some behavioral variables that might be included in a major longitudinal study of heart disease in New England. No behavioral variables were included. The dominant view at that time was that conditions like heart diseases were biological phenomena not involving social or behavioral influences. Soon however, stress became recognized as a contributor to heart disease and the study of disease and health of the aged expanded to include behavioral and cultural influences. I could go on with more examples of out-of-date paradigms but I will just give one more. Shortly after the Gerontology Center was established, Herbert De Vries, who was a professor in physical education, wanted to do a study of exercise in older persons at the Leisure World retirement community in Laguna Beach. That was in 1969. Initially Leisure World declined the project because of the belief that exercise was a threat not a benefit for seniors. Later, after the study was approved, the results showed seniors benefitted by exercise. Now the old adage that “Use It And Lose It” has been replaced by the contemporary adage of “Use It Or Lose It,” today’s view of exercise and aging. Buying a new rocking chair is not a contemporary prescription for retirement.

I want to shift my focus from out of date paradigms to my mantra, “age doesn’t cause anything”. Age is a convenient index to use for predictions and guesses about many things, but age is only an index for the accumulation of the effects of many causal variables that contribute to our health, well-being, and mortality. Age itself is not a cause.

We use age as a convenient index for predictions and guesses about many things.  The age of an automobile or a house may lead us not to get it repaired or not to buy it. The accumulated damage from many causes can lead to increased risks of survival or economic value. Other objects like an antique painting or a piece of archeological pottery may increase in economic value with age. 

We often like to judge the age of a person for many reasons, such as their likely vitality, health and likely longevity.

We can estimate chronological age but with limitations.  When students are asked about the age of a speaker they may mention hair color, posture, speed of movement, speech, and other characteristics. For example the observation that wrinkles reflect age is generally correct and leads to a good guess about the age of a person. However the observation of age doesn’t tell us anything about the underlying causes of the wrinkles.

People accumulate wrinkles with age because of thickening of the collagen fibers in the skin and the disappearance of elastic fibers. As we age, we may overeat and add to the binding of collagen fibers due to the oxidative damage from our diet. 73 years ago, we learned from studies of rats that dietary restriction reduced collagen thickening and longer life. So wrinkles are not the result of age, they result from the accumulation of the effects of oxidative damage to collagen fibers. You can’t treat age, but you can intervene and treat the causal variables it indexes if you do research to reveal them.

The task of gerontology is in part the breaking away from the custom of using age as a primary causal variable and identifying underlying causes whose effects may accumulate as irreversible, relatively irreversible, or reversible changes in organisms. Insight into the causes of the changes indexed by age can lead to interventions that can have many benefits for longevity, health, and well being.  

At the same time that our collagen may thicken and have bad effects on our vascular functioning, positive changes may occur. Our vocabularies can rise and improve our communication. Experience can lead to wisdom but wisdom like heart disease is not caused by age but by experience and its interpretation in the brain. As an individual matures he or she may become more susceptible to diabetes due to aging and at the same time become wiser as a result of life’s experiences. 

One of the impressive aspects of our evolving aging population is its diversity. Individuals may become disabled or demented in their fifties while others increase their productivity in later years. There are over 150 licensed drivers of cars over the age of 100 in California. The oldest one is 105. An emerging subgroup of “late life bloomers” is being recognized. These persons release talents and productivity after the usual age of retirement. I will mention only one, Ethel Percy Andrus.

Ethel Percy Andrus was the principal of the Lincoln High School in Los Angeles. When she retired she received a very small pension, I believe it was $60 a month. She organized the Retired Teachers Association in California to get the state legislature to raise teachers’ pensions. She then turned to creating health insurance for retired teachers since after World War II, if you were over 65 you could not buy any health insurance. Insurance companies were not issuing health insurance for persons over 65. About 1960 Ethel Percy Andrus tried to get insurance companies to write health insurance but was unsuccessful until she put her efforts in the state of New York. There she got the New York Retired Teachers Association to promote the idea and she found a young insurance agent, Leonard Davis, to undertake it with a contract. The NY Teachers Association agreed to pay any loss that might occur the first years and Leonard Davis agreed to use his contract profit to undertake the advertizing of the insurance to the teachers. It was successful and the idea spread across the country to all state retired teachers associations. Then others, who were not teachers in the country wanted health insurance if they were over age 65 and it led to the creation of the American Association of Retired Persons, now the largest membership organization in America. All of this was done after she retired. She is a model late life bloomer. There are other examples of late life bloomers but time is short on graduation day.  

There is however another positive aspect of later life in addition to the late life bloomers. Many people after or before retirement “mellow out” and become helpful grandparents. In the university, we have examples of mellow mentors in relation to students. In business we have mellowing examples such as Bill Gates who earned a fortune in his work life. When he retired he mellowed out and gave his much of his fortune to productive uses. Mellowing is often more productive than bellowing about daily life problems. Some studies of mellowing would likely yield some useful information.

I have not said much about the practical side of gerontology and the emergence of senior business markets. AARP found in a study that older persons buy more new cars that do young adults. Yet on television, we often see ads of a young woman smiling at a young man in the shiny new car. Older persons buy new cars for reliability, not for sex. One other market comment, I was part of a survey that sent 6000 questionnaires to the film and television guilds. The television and film industries said they were ageist and wanted to produce themes of interest to older adults but were subject to the market planners who were focused on young adults.

There is much more to be said about the emergence of gerontology in the second half of the 20th Century. Replacing the terms “age” and “aging” with causal variables and leading to new interventions is becoming clearly evident. The complexity of our subject matter ranges from the influences of the epigenome and genome to the influences of culture and our life styles upon our mortality, health, and well-being. Increasingly there will be an emphasis on integration of our information about the human organisms and the influences upon them to help us live longer, healthier, and have better lives.



Click here to read Jim's article, The Agequake Associated with an Aging Population: Lag Effects in Society, Institutions, and Individuals


Every Life is Different

No lives are the same. They begin differently, flow differently, and end differently. From the time a single sperm fertilizes a single ova, the environment and circumstances create a unique life. The result is that the story of a person's life is like no other and its telling is a special kind of sharing, the sharing of the inside view of the experiences of living a life.

Guided Autobiography recognizes and works toward evoking and preserving the uniqueness that surrounds all lives. The organizers of Guided Autobiography groups attempt to prime the memories of the past, the thoughts and feelings about the events of growing up and maturing that were experienced in family life, school, work, health and illness, during wars, economic prosperity and depression, and rain and sunshine: The emphasis should be on the unique story and individual has to tell, not upon the general trends which is the business of science.

The tasks of science are to gather information, data, and offer generalizations or theories that explain why the predictable comes about. There is no antagonism between science and the interpretation of an individual life. It is expected that scientific research will increasingly inform us about how most people develop, for example, their average age at puberty and the biological factors that bring it about, the patterns of meeting life's obligations and tasks. Much research on development has contributed to our understanding of the developmental and aging processes that can lead to understanding and minimizing some of the risks and undesirable consequences of our behavior and the environments in which we live.

Current generations know much better than our ancestors about the risks of smoking and over use of alcohol and that low fat high fiber diets lower risks of disease. The developmental theories of Freud, Jung, Rank, Adler, Erikson, Gesell, and countless others have contributed to our understanding of the flow of lives. This information has been useful in solving many of life's problems and we recognize that we need to know more to further improve our health, well being, and quality of life.

We need to avoid the compression into an external theoretical framework, the experiences and interpretations of an individual's life as led. There are always details that are left out of our theories. It is in these details and the chance events that surround lives, that provide the basis for encouraging individuals to write and share their life stories which are unique and may never have been told.

There are two perspectives in understanding life; the general view provided by science and the personal views of individuals. Both are needed and in daily life we alternate between following generalizations of science and the dictates that arise from our personal experience and its interpretation. Perhaps we might create a symbol of Minerva the goddess of wisdom by molding a head with two faces, one focused outward on the knowledge of science and of other persons, and one focused inwards on self knowledge.

The one focused inwards is the wisdom strengthened through Guided Autobiography. It grasps the exceptions the experiences of our lives provide to the rules provided by science.

Guided Autobiography should give primary attention to bringing out the individual's account of life, the experiences and interpretations. It should minimize the encouragement of fitting a life into a pattern created by scientific research. A therapy, for example, is devoted to problem solving and may be very sophisticated and current in its data base and rationale. Yet Guided Autobiography is not directed toward problem solving or crisis management. Insights may be gained in the process of Guided Autobiography that reduce tensions or a developmental problem. That is not unlike solving a problem in daily life by learning or meeting a person who provides some insight.

Guided Autobiography should give its highest priority to encouraging individuals' recall of their life experiences and self-interpretations of their lives, and not to press upon them a mold of theory which cannot embrace the unique features of their lives. In a sense, the organizer of a Guided Autobiography group is a midwife to assist in the delivery of a life, a natural process that should result in the individual's feeling increasingly as the owner of his or her life.