Diehl honored for pioneering work in the psychology of aging

photo of Manfred Diehl
Manfred Diehl (click to enlarge)

If he hadn’t registered as a conscientious objector and performed non-military service as a young man in Germany, Manfred Diehl may well have never made such a mark on the psychology of aging.

Diehl, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Colorado State University, formally registered his opposition to war and violence with the government and got permission to perform alternative service, working with disabled young men in lieu of Germany’s required stint in the army. Working with those young men — and seeing the profound effect that the lone clinical psychologist on staff had on them — made Diehl want to pursue a career working with people who need psychological support.

The significant discoveries he has made during that long career were recently honored by an organization in his home country: Diehl just received the Humboldt Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, one of the oldest and most prestigious science foundations in Europe.

“When I found out, I was very elated, because I know this is a very competitive award and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is very selective,” Diehl said. “It has special meaning, to be able to do some of my research in Germany.”

Research in Germany

He plans to use most of the $78,000 award to spend six months in Germany during 2015, conducting research at the Ruprecht-Karls University in Heidelberg, the German Center of Gerontology in Berlin, and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.

It was in Germany where Diehl, the first in his working-class family to attend college and earn a degree, wrote a master’s thesis the length of a Ph.D. dissertation on how critical life events such as a divorce, the loss of a loved one or being diagnosed with cancer can be an impetus for personal growth.

After receiving his master’s in 1984, Diehl got a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service to earn his Ph.D. overseas, at Pennsylvania State University. In his dissertation there, he pioneered the “Observed Tasks of Daily Living,” a measure still used today to assess whether older adults are competent to live on their own.

Early research

After earning his doctorate, Diehl devoted the early portion of his career to examining how a person’s self-view varies in different social roles, and he found that the more that view fluctuates across roles, the more likely the individual is to be emotionally unstable and at risk for poor psychological well-being.

Later, Diehl’s research focused on coping strategies and defense mechanisms in adulthood, as well as “Awareness of Age-Related Change,” which deals with how individuals’ actual age compares to how old they feel. For example, if a 45-year-old says she feels like she’s only 35, generally that’s a positive sign, as opposed to someone who says he feels 10 years older than he actually is.

“Such a subjective age rating is a powerful predictor of a variety of important outcomes, including how long a person will live and how healthy the person will be,” Diehl explained. “Usually in their early 40s adults start feeling younger than they actually are, and that’s a predictor of good things. If they report feeling older, that tends to be negative and is also associated with less healthy behavior.”

Perception of aging

Most recently, he and his German research collaborator Hans-Werner Wahl, who nominated Diehl for the Humboldt award, have developed a tool for measuring people’s perceptions of their age and age-related changes. Their cutting-edge work is demonstrating that a targeted educational program can improve middle-aged and older adults’ negative views on aging and can help people form new positive habits, such as engaging in regular exercise or committing to healthy eating.

“We can provide information to people that positively affects their view on their own aging, and that, in turn, translates into positive behavior,” said Diehl, who joined CSU in 2006. “The earlier people start planning for growing older, the better it is for them and society. And our program provides a fairly low-cost approach of helping people to grow older more successfully.”

“Professor Diehl has made several seminal contributions, both conceptually as well as empirically, to the areas of social-emotional and personality development across the adult lifespan,” Wahl wrote in his nomination letter, adding that he expects more great work in the future. “I am convinced that he will continue to make highly visible contributions to the field of adult development and aging.”

‘Prestigious recognition’

“The Humboldt award is one of the most prestigious recognitions of quality research in the world, and we are very pleased that Professor Diehl has won it this year,” said CSU Provost and Executive Vice President Rick Miranda. “The award will enable him to raise the trajectory of his work, which has great application and impact.”

“Manfred Diehl is an internationally recognized scholar and is an impressive ambassador of the quality of social and behavioral sciences here at CSU,” said Jeff McCubbin, dean of the CSU College of Health and Human Sciences, where Diehl’s department is housed. “His scholarly contributions to aging research are very impressive, and being the recipient of this Humboldt award is emblematic of his international reputation as a scientist.”

Diehl said the honor carries even more significance now that he has lived in the U.S. for nearly as long as he lived in Germany – and has lost both his parents over the past four years.

“This was almost like creating a new tie to Germany,” he said. “Bringing those two worlds together is extremely meaningful to me. My mom and dad would have been very proud.”