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Prof. Dr. Thomas Klein

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Director of the Institute of Soziology, University of Heidelberg


Klein, Fotos von Michael Doh, NAR

Interview vom 14. November 2007 mit Dr. Birgit Teichmann


Prof. Klein, if we want to know how to age healthily the answer usually is: healthy, Mediterranean diet, mental and physical fitness. How do you rate the physical activity of people in their second half of life?

According to general opinion, the elderly are less active in sports than young people. However, this is only partly correct and to some extent it is even incorrect, because this is not a matter of age, but rather a matter of the personal lifestyle being characterized either by having always been active in sports or having done little or no sports at all during life. 30 years ago, the currently 60-70 year olds have not been more sporty, while middle-aged persons of today have been impacted by the fitness wave of the past decades and thus we can expect them to continue doing some sports or exercise. So what seems to be decisive are rather generational than age differences. However, it can be stated that with increasing age less people do take up sports. But at the same time, those who were always active in sports remain active in later life. What can be observed thus is rather a consolidation of the accustomed active or non-active life style. Accordingly, the medically so-called prevalence does not change as much as is commonly expected during the course of life.


How can we promote physical activity of the elderly?  Where may they get information about activities for their age group?

I do not know particularly more than anybody else about where to get this information, but of course everybody can contact sports clubs or evening schools, check the phone book or go directly to a fitness center. Basically, I would rather argue that the active impulse has to stem from the active person, as is already implied by the word ‘activity’. Moreover, many popular sports such as running or cycling do not need any infrastructure.I thought the doctor’s advice to be more active was more of an encouragement. With a certain age, there are inhibitions to go to a fitness studio, where mostly younger persons work out. It is a matter of life style. The older a person is, the more difficult it gets to change the accustomed life style. That is correct. This refers not only to sports but already starts with patterns of mobility, e. g. being accustomed to take the car for even the shortest distances. I would carry it one step further: Even putting on sports clothes in the morning can be odd for somebody who has never done this before as these are not the kind of clothes that he or she is used to wear and identifies with. Being in a fitness studio next to young people might be an obstacle for mature persons at first, but it is only a matter of habituation. I myself go to a fitness studio and there are 60+ people as well who do no worse than some of the younger ones.


You are analyzing the life expectancy with regard to education, income and the partnership situation. Do you have to be rich in order to age healthily?

If one has to be rich, meaning, if income is the decisive factor or if it is rather education or the job, has not been finally ascertained yet. But what can definitely be said, is that a higher social status doubtlessly affects health and life expectancy in a positive way. However, it is less important to be rich than it is not to be poor. The differences between low and middle social status groups with respect to health and life expectancy are much higher than are those between middle and high status groups.


Education may be helpful for aging healthily because it provides a person with broader financial possibilities and a mentally demanding job. But does this mean that the educated elderly are happier than the less educated?

Well, I don't know whether they are indeed happier, maybe a psychologist could give an answer to this question, but at least they do have less reason to be unhappy, as they tend to be healthier and enjoy better living conditions. However, social differences in health decline with increasing age. The health differences between the social groups are greater in young age than in older age. Similarly, this holds true with regard to differences in income and education. There are several reasons for that. One important reason is a selection effect, resulting in the survival of the healthiest and fittest particularly in those social groups with a high mortality. Thus, the health differences between the different social groups are reduced in old age. Another reason for the adjustment of the social groups’ health status in old age is simply, that various reasons being responsible for the differences in mortality and health become less important in old age. An example for this are the working conditions: When retired, they bear no direct influence on the retiree anymore.


Frequently, it can be read that men have a greater chance to grow old when being married. Women, however, do not gain any additional years by marriage. Has there been a change in recent years due to women’s increasing employment?

Indeed, there are results pointing in the mentioned direction, that men profit more from a partnership than do women. However, there are studies stating the opposite, even though these are fewer. Quite often the reason provided is that men are less capable to take care and to cook of themselves. But with regard to the future, things are surely about to change. When the middle-aged generation will have grown older, a lot of these things will have changed. Generally, what definitely can be said is that irrespective of who, men or women, is profiting more from a partnership, being in a partnership has a positive effect on health and life expectancy for both sexes. As far as the gender difference in life expectancy is concerned, it is observable that men’s life expectancy is actually more strongly increasing than is women’s. This is due to different reasons, as for example to the adjustment of life styles and life circumstances between the sexes. Regarding the living conditions women’s employment, as you have already mentioned, has to be named, but besides this, it is recognizable that health affecting life styles – including sports, smoking and others more - are increasingly less determined by gender today. Women are catching up in these respects and are gradually approaching men’s corresponding levels. Another fact contributing to the adjustment of males’ and females’ life expectancy, which is often overlooked, is that the age group, which survived the war, is gradually dying out. The important point is that the male survivors of this age group are characterized by rather poor health as particularly the healthy men had to serve in the army and thus died during World War II. As a result, the rather unhealthy male survivors of the war statistically contributed to men’s lower life expectancy in old age. Going along with the passing away of this war generation group, men will catch up in terms of life expectancy. 


What does the common citizen gain from your research results?

For example, the results of the project on doing sports in old age, which is supported by the Landesstiftung Baden-Württemberg, shall contribute to achieve scientifically based recommendations which help to promote the physical fitness of the elderly.


Which advantages do you expect from your cooperation with the ‘Network Aging Research’, in which researchers of different fields work together?

I am looking forward to having a closer exchange with colleagues and to getting in touch with colleagues who are engaged in similar or related projects. Moreover, I think this will benefit my own research and perhaps result in joint research projects. But I also expect new impulses for the teaching part for even though I am working at the Institute of Sociology, I will also contribute to the future master’s degree of Gerontology.


Personal Data

Thomas Klein was born in 1955 in Heidelberg. He studied social sciences at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg and received his doctorate by the University of Frankfurt. Further research activities brought him to the universities of Karlsruhe, Mannheim and Constance until he was appointed his professorship for sociology at the University of Heidelberg. Focal point of his research is the population- and family sociology, social structure analysis, social politics research as well as methods of empirical social research.

Thomas Klein is enthusiastic mountain biker, who can be found in the Alps each summer, where his challenges are the alpine passes. He plays tennis and badminton and participates regularly at university sports.  During winter time you can meet him often at the fitness center, where he enjoys lifting weight.

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