Cognitive Aging Roadmap

The Cognitive Aging Roadmap 2020+ supported by EUCAS describes fields of activities and priorities for cognitive aging research in Europe for the next decade that ensure capacity building, rapid knowledge gain, integration of existing knowledge, and translation of knowledge for the advantage of individuals, communities, and countries. The Roadmap is a key project of the new board and is designed to involve all relevant stakeholders in its formulation and implementation. EUCAS together with its partners will advocate the implementation and advice policy makers on its implications. It will put EUCAS on the stage as a consultant for questions of institutional education, research agendas and funding, and public attention to cognitive aging issues. 
The EUCAS roadmap has four goals:

  1. Shape Cognitive Aging in Europe as a field characterized by its topics, theories, methods, and relevance to societal issues.
  2. Build capacity for European leadership in cognitive aging research.
  3. Present experiences and develop recommendations for national and European academic programs tuned to the goals of the roadmap.
  4. Set up a research agenda for cognitive aging research in Europe based on its accomplishments and challenges.

Why now?

  1. As digitalization provides access to increasing amounts of data, cognitive abilities allowing to select, evaluate and interpret information are becoming increasingly crucial for individuals and societies to maintain their independence and productivity.
  2. As portable devices and big data provide opportunities to simultaneously measure multiple levels of data (from cell to brain to individual to context) relevant for the understanding and just-in-time promotion of cognitive functioning, only a coordinated multidisciplinary effort can ensure the integration of data and knowledge for a complete picture of cognitive aging.
  3. As WHO is promoting 2021-2030 to become the “Decade of Healthy Aging”, their conceptual model emphasizes the importance of both intrinsic capacities such as cognitive abilities and their interactions with individuals as decision makers and developmental contexts. Cognitive aging research thus must take personal, local, and regional context into account when recommend decision support for individuals and communities aiming to improve cognitive capacities. Thus, cognitive aging research requires to take the diversity of European contexts represented in EUCAS into account.
  4. Based on demographic developments in Europe over the next ten years, maintaining cognitive health becomes increasingly important to maintain wellbeing and productivity in Europe. If Europe wants to stay ahead of developments, the rapid synthesis of existing knowledge and the acceleration of knowledge gain on the dynamics of cognitive health requires much more research and research integration capacity building.
  5. Research structures in many places are characterized by a lack of coordination between basic and applied research. Cognitive aging research can increase its contribution to providing decision-support and practical impact through the support of a systematic alignment between basic and applied research. This would also result in science-supported policy advice on cognitive health.

What is Cognitive Aging (Research)?

CAR is the scientific investigation of adult age-related changes in mental and physical behavior and its underlying mechanisms. Cognitive is used in the broader sense referring to the utilization of brain-based representations or mechanisms including perceptual, sensorimotor and emotional processes as well as the more classic cognitive domains like reasoning, thinking, and language use. Cognitive aging research aims to determine the mechanisms and conditions of change underlying development and leading to potential differences among age groups. Cognitive aging research differs from other disciplines targeting adult age by its reliance on psychological methodology comprising a large repertoire including experimental, correlational (questionnaires, neuroimaging) as well as observational and interview techniques. While the bulk of cognitive aging research is oriented towards hypothesis testing and theory building, the field enjoys a productive and growing applied sector. Applied areas with considerable impact comprise assessment and development of specific technology (e.g., assisted housing or driving, the training methods to boost cognitive and physical skills).

What can cognitive aging research contribute to make people's lives better?

The rapidly growing percentage of older adults in basically all developed countries presents totally new challenges to societies. Cognitive aging research can play an eminent role in determining the potential and the needs of this group, which will be vital for creating an atmosphere of trust and cooperation between people of different ages. This basically means that cognitive aging research must aim to describe older adults' learning and performance potentials and their limitations. A key aspect in this context are the considerable individual differences among late middle age and older adults. For example, how long can we expect older adults to function in which professions and how can we identify individuals who need specific support or protection? 
Providing knowledge for societal and political decisions is but one side of the coin. If we want individuals to become the "creators of their own development" cognitive aging research has to provide knowledge and strategies that can be applied by aging individuals themselves. A first step must be shaping realistic expectations, for example, with respect to the opportunities and challenges of a long life. Examples are reliable information about "normal" age-related changes that impair daily living like sleep problems, hearing impairments and lapses of memory. Another aspect is a fair evaluation of training programs and "lifestyle interventions" allegedly delaying the onset of dementia or maintaining domain-general cognitive functions at almost young adult levels.

Why a European Perspective on Cognitive Aging Research?

EUCAS and the biannual conference on Aging & Cognition target the same group of researchers as the biannual Cognitive Aging Conference in Atlanta, USA, and thus we naturally compete for attention. A European conference offers a forum that has several advantages. One of them is an ecological perspective preventing transatlantic flights. in years of convention make it possible for everybody to attend both conferences. Beyond that healthy competition there are specific strengths and challenges in a European Society and its perspective on Cognitive Aging. Europe offers the power of diversity of its many cultures with individual research traditions, specific approaches to the needs of aging societies and a collaborative context that allows each country to choose the best mix for its problems and potentials. EUCAS has a strong potential role in this context by providing a forum for related exchanges and discussions. There are also several funding opportunities in the European context, which emphasize European collaborations.

Possible course of action and questions: A work-group or task force that collects information about the public perspective on the aging society, the expectations towards and the funding of cognitive aging research that could contribute along the lines discussed above.

How would an academic training program aligned to roadmap goals look like?

At many universities cognitive aging research has long left its niche existence. That does not automatically mean that the topic has found its way into the curricula of BA/MA programs. EUCAS can be a platform by collecting information about how cognitive aging is represented in different programs, what the experiences are with this approach, and where people see need for extensions and improvements. Of particular interest is whether departments of faculties frame cognitive aging within a conceptual perspective (like a lifespan developmental approach) or whether it is viewed as a separate field (e.g., a specialization within a gerontological domain). Our goal should be to give programs a chance to present themselves via the EUCAS website, for example, and to develop recommendations for universities or faculties who want to develop their programs.

Possible course of action and questions: Map out the situation in different countries (what does the typical Psych program look like regarding cognitive aging at the major universities? Are there special programs? While the most frequent, we should probably not restrict ourselves to the traditional BA/MA programs, but also consider the more specialized programs (e.g., in NL) and maybe even consider non-academic trainings (professionals in geriatric care and nursing are trained at universities in some countries, but not in others).  How is the overlap/cooperation/competition between medical and psychological programs?). Work towards a list of recommendations for suitable programs!

What are the 10 most important insights that cognitive aging research gained during the last 20 years?

  1. The delineation of multi-dimensionality and multi-directionality (e.g., gains in emotional stability when growing old can occur simultaneously with losses in mental and physical capacities).
  2. The insight that late adulthood is not just ONE life period but should be described in terms of at least TWO phases with large individual differences regarding their transitions.
  3. The demonstration of considerable cognitive plasticity in the old and even the very old.
  4. The insight that more healthy years very likely come with longer periods of frailty and slower terminal decline.
  5. The demonstration that maintaining specific skills or expertise in old age is possible despite some age-related declines in cognitive capacities
  6. The insight that age-related cognitive decline can (at least in part) be compensated for by strategies (such as selection, optimization, and compensation) as well as increased effort.
  7. The elucidation of a wealth of exogenous and endogenous factors capable of influencing healthy aging and cognitive functions in higher age.
  8. The insight that cognitive aging cannot be separated from brain physiological changes. The body-mind problem also arises for age-related changes.
  9. And as a practical implication: the insight that the heterogeneity of the subject is great and that multidisciplinarity is a specific challenge for aging research.
  10. The insight that some older employees are still able and willing to work beyond the retirement age.

What are the 10 hottest and most urgent topics for cognitive aging research in the next decade?

  1.  How can we support a switch from extending life at all costs to supporting a long and satisfying life in dignity?
  2. Which interventions for cognition are best suited for older adults? Do any of these methods provide far transfer? What do the differences in learning between young and older adults imply for shared learning environments and work contexts?
  3. How can older adults accommodate new technologies and contexts that increasingly rely on multi-tasking? (not sure young adults are really good at it, though)
  4. How do the determinants of healthy aging already in earlier life and the influencing exogenous and endogenous factors interact?
  5. How is cognitive performance in old age related to brain physiological changes? On which mechanisms are the effects of intervention measures based?
  6. How can be aging and aging-related issues positively promoted by politics and media?
  7. How can we enhance employability of older employees?
  8. How can we support older people with digitalization? How can we help to develop aging friendly devices?
  9. How can we support integration of older people in the changing society?
  10. How can we support older people to live independently and to preserve their quality of life?

Who are the stakeholders of EUCAS?

Different from the shareholder concept, which focusses on individuals' prime interest in a company's (short-term) profit, the shareholder idea emphasizes that an organization is responsible to meet the interests of a broader group of interested individuals and institutions. Stakeholders are not necessarily identified by their financial contribution or direct membership but by shared values, common interests in long-term development or by being affected by the course of an organization. We use the concept here to emphasize our belief that a well-working European Society is not limited to organizing a conference every other year, but that it should play an important role in several other respects as well. Here we recapitulate our ideas about who might benefit from a prospering EUCAS in the long run.

EUCAS members are obvious stakeholders through their interests in exchanging ideas, skills, job information and funding opportunities related to cognitive aging. We already outlined faculties and other training institutions as stakeholders who might benefit from sharing our ideas about productive training in cognitive aging. This also includes new and future students who are attracted to our field. A third group of stakeholders are funding organizations and politicians who seek information and inspiration for future programs. By supporting the exchange of ideas and results EUCAS can inform technological developments that have an impact on daily lives of older individuals (e.g., the mixed benefits of electronic gimmicks allegedly supporting driving). Political decision makers are in permanent need of expert knowledge and opinions for societally relevant questions like lifelong learning, continued employability, housing in later life, and participation of the elderly. EUCAS can serve as a dedicated platform to help organizing this information exchange.

Naturally, broadening EUCAS scope to meet the interests of these stakeholders can only be the work of many, not the board alone. Get involved!