Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D. has forever changed the field of geriatrics while successfully challenging misconceptions about aging as a lifestage of inevitable decline and loss.
His scientifically-derived conclusions and insights about aging brains are voluminous. His trendsetting research and thoughtful analyses are inspiring new industries. His influence will persist for generations as society evolves more optimistic models of the aging process.
A member of the Silent Generation at 65 (not quite a Leading-Edge Boomer by one year), Dr. Cohen passed away on Friday, November 6, 2009, after a brave, fourteen-year battle against prostate cancer.
For those in business and marketing, Dr. Cohen’s research and clinical observations provide exciting new insights into aging, while creating vast opportunities for new products and services and reframing outdated societal myths.
Here are a few of Dr. Cohen’s salient observations—insights not derived from wishful thinking or overly idealized beliefs, but from rock-hard scientific research, much of it emanating from the field of neuroscience:
1. Contrary to popular myth, brain cells do not stop forming after adolescence; growing new brain cells is a lifelong phenomenon.
2. The brain's ability to grow new neurons is a dramatic reason for optimism about the brain’s potential in the second half of life.
3. Older brains can learn new things, and they are actually better than younger brains at many types of intellectual tasks.
4. The brain and mental capacity continue to grow throughout life.
5. As humans age, we use both hemispheres of the brain more efficiently; the brain becomes vastly more creative as life progresses.
6. Adversity and loss that often accompany later-life actually encourage creativity by forcing change.
From the perspective of cognition, how do aging adults differ from younger adults? According to Dr. Cohen, aging brains become more adept in three forms of thinking:
• Relativistic thinking, where understanding is based on a synthesized combination of disparate views. Older adults abandon absolute truth in favor of more realistic relative truths.
• Dualist thinking, where contradictions in opposing views are uncovered and opposites are held in mind at the same time without judgment. In this way, opposing views can be accepted as valid.
• Systematic thinking allows the person to see the forest as well as the trees, rising above minutia to understand the bigger picture. The thinker is thus not trapped in personal and petty issues.
Throughout his long career, Dr. Cohen distinguished himself for his vision, kindness and unyielding commitment to the field of aging and improving health of older adults.
After graduating from Harvard College and Georgetown University School of Medicine, he began shaping the field of geriatrics through his work at the National Institute of Mental Health in the early 1970’s. He was the first chief of the Center on Aging and Director of the Program on Aging.
During his early years at NIMH, he took interest in minorities by supporting research on mental health of impoverished and homeless, leading to Medicare changes allowing for reimbursement of mental health services (beyond the original annual $250 limit).
He continued his commitment to biological, psychological and social issues in geriatric medicine at the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health where he served as Acting Director, helping grow the institute budget into the hundreds of millions and catapulting the field of aging into a global spotlight.
He authored over 150 publications in the field of aging including, The Creative Age: Awakening the Human Potential in the Second Half of Life, published in 2000 and most recently, The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain. The former book is groundbreaking in its revelations about creativity and aging.
Dr. Cohen also acted as the first director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University where he held positions of Professor of Health Care Sciences and Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
His hobbies reflected his professional interests. A blossoming game inventor after age 50, Dr. Cohen demonstrated that creativity and untapped potential are possible for older adults. His most recent game, Making Memories Together, assists families and caregivers of Alzheimer’s disease patients.
As I prepared this tribute, I recalled that someone once snapped a photo of Dr. Cohen with me at a meeting of The Society, a global think-tank founded by esteemed author David B. Wolfe and focused on business, marketing and aging. This photo memory is a wonderful gift from Dr. Cohen to all of us dedicated to changing aging:
Do not go gently, indeed. This is a lasting message from a man who has dramatically influenced the profession of aging, instilling more clarity about the unique contributions of aging adults in an aging society, and he did so while fighting prostate cancer for fourteen years.