Life After the Ivory Tower

Donald Kausler's Second Career as the Country's Guru on Aging

Don Kausler The Graying of America
Don Kausler has become a successful author and columnist since leaving the ivory tower. He published The Graying of America in 1996.

During his career, APS Fellow Don Kausler was instrumental in the development of cognitive aging as a scientific specialty. Since his retirement he has written a for-the-public book The Graying of America and writes a newspaper column on issues in aging. He has written 138 columns thus far, and his columns have appeared in newspapers across the country, including several that carry weekly columns, and in 20 online newspapers. The following article is a recap, so to speak, of an exemplary scientist who continues to offer good science to a broad public.

One of my earliest and most vivid memories of APS Fellow Don Kausler was in the psychology department’s mailroom. It was my first year as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri and I was considering a few research projects in the area of cognitive aging. When it comes to issues in aging and cognition, Don is the man to ask. On this day, Don was photocopying a manuscript and thus had his back to the crowd milling about the mail bins. As I sorted through my mail, I asked something to the effect, “So, Don what’s the bottom line in terms of cognitive and memory changes with adult aging?” Don glanced back at me and replied, “Your brain rots!” and then promptly returned his attention to the photocopier.

This is a classic illustration of Don’s sense of humor, but with a twist of truth. I have since learned that Don’s summary is not entirely correct: Some brains are rotten from the get-go and others mellow with age, much like a fine wine. Don’s mind is in the latter category, and as a result we all knew that when he retired in 1992 his mind would not stay idle for long.

Twelve years later, in between frequent visits with his four children and 12 grandchildren, Don and his son Barry have written two editions of the encyclopedia of aging for the general public, The Graying of America: An Encyclopedia of Health, Mind, and Behavior. The encyclopedia includes 470 entries that cover everything you wanted to know about aging, from accidents to grandparenting to worries. If you are curious about what life is like down the road, you should visit The Graying of America web site: www.press.uillinois.edu/epub/books/kausler/toc.html.

In addition to the encyclopedia, Don also began writing columns on various aging issues, including changes in sleep patterns, attention, vision, and much more. In 2001 he became a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service. At the age of 77, Don is on the verge of publishing his 150th column, with material for 100 more.

How does one become a successful trade book author and syndicated columnist upon leaving the ivory tower? It helps to have a good mind that aged well. It also helps to have had a varied and full academic life. Don’s intellectual career began in 1947 with an undergraduate degree in zoology from Washington University in St. Louis and a ticket to medical school. Fortunately for our field, Don skipped medical school and instead took up experimental psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. His interests didn’t range too far from zoology, as he studied classical conditioning in the rat. In 1951, around the time Don completed his PhD, the Korean War swept him into the Air Force as a lieutenant and research psychologist. A few more twists of fate, including a lack of research funds to get back into animal learning, and Don became an assistant professor studying human learning at the University of Arkansas.

In addition to traditional experimental approaches and in collaboration with a young clinical psychologist, Philip Trapp, Don explored the relations among achievement motivation, personality, and children’s anxiety and learning in school and in other real-world contexts. After five years at Arkansas and in part so he could go to Cardinals baseball games, Don accepted a position at St. Louis University in 1961. A few years later Don found himself as department chair and began to expand his studies to human aging.

In 1971 Don moved to the University of Missouri and during this decade published many important studies on cognitive aging, as well as his second book, Psychology of Verbal Learning and Memory (1974). His experimental studies included one of the first demonstrations that memory decline with normal aging is in part due to attending to irrelevant information. In other words, strong learning and memory is related to the ability to focus attention only on relevant information and to ignore irrelevant information. Part of the age-related decline in memory is due to changes in the ability to ignore the irrelevant.

Another study was one of the first to demonstrate that older adults have more false memories than their younger peers. In the 1980s, Don published his now classic, Experimental Psychology and Human Aging (1982), and two years later was appointed the inaugural associate editor of the APA journal, Psychology and Aging. Under the stewardship of Don, who handled all manuscripts that dealt with non-clinical topics, and the first editor, Powell Lawton, the journal emerged as the premier scientific and scholarly outlet in the field.

During this time, Don also served for three years on a scientific review panel for the National Institute on Aging and expanded his research to the study of age-related change in memory for actions. The studies were of course conducted in the laboratory, but they addressed important and overlooked real-world issues, like how we recall whether we locked the door to the house before leaving for work, or whether we left the oven on. One correlate of aging is a decline in the ability to remember whether these actions were performed or not. Across dozens of experiments funded by the National Institute on Aging, Don and his students demonstrated that the elderly encode these events into long-term memory and recognize actions when they are repeated, but have difficulty retrieving the events from long-term memory. In short, aging involves selective changes in action memory, whereby the observed declines are unrelated to the initial encoding or the ability to recognize a performed action but are related to retrieving whether or not the action occurred. Don and his then colleague at Missouri, Tim Salthouse, also addressed a number of other issues associated with cognitive aging, including the influence of health.

The 1990s brought retirement from the University of Missouri, in 1992, and his fourth and fifth academic books, Experimental Psychology, Cognition, and Human Aging in 1991, and Learning and Memory in Normal Aging in 1994, as well as scientific and scholarly publications throughout the decade. There were many accolades along the way, including a Curator’s Professorship, a Distinguished Byler Professor Award, and a Middlebush Professorship from the University of Missouri.

And all of this is where Don’s career as America’s guru on aging and as a syndicated columnist began.

The first edition of The Graying of America was released in 1996 to strong reviews. The goal of the book, as aptly described in Contemporary Gerontology, was to provide “a resource that bridges the gap between information on both normal and abnormal aging that exists in technical resources … and the lay public’s need for information about the many areas of aging” (Hayslip, 1997). “The Graying of America represents a Herculean effort to educate patients. It is an ambitious work that collates years of collected medical and psychiatric data into a dictionary format” (Rogers, 1997, p. 16). The second edition was published in 2001 and was greatly expanded to include more entries on positive aspects of aging; areas of the brain and skills that don’t actually rot and may in fact improve into old age (e.g., general knowledge).

Don’s recent columns have covered topics ranging from when to stop driving to curiosity and personality in the elderly. Don is someone who continues to contribute to psychology, but now instead of generating new knowledge he has found a way to share this knowledge with the wider public. This is an equally valuable contribution and one that enhances the reputation of scientific psychology. I cannot think of a better way to spend one’s time after leaving the ivory tower.

References

Hayslip, B. Jr. (1997). [Review of The Graying of America: An Encyclopedia of Aging, Health, Mind, and Behavior by Donald H. Kausler & Barry C. Kausler]. Contemporary Gerontology, 4¸ 51-53.
Kausler, D. H., & Kausler, B. C. (2001). The Graying of America: An Encyclopedia of Aging, Health, Mind, and Behavior (2nd Ed.). Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Rogers, E. J. (1997). [Review of The Graying of America: An Encyclopedia of Aging, Health, Mind, and Behavior by Donald H. Kausler & Barry C. Kausler]. Chicago Medicine, 100, 16.

Observer Vol.17, No.9 September, 2004

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