Gerontology

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Gerontology is the study of aging. It is distinguished from geriatrics, which is the branch of medicine that studies the diseases of the elderly.

Gerontology covers the social, psychological and biological aspects of aging.

Elderly Woman

Gerontology includes these and other endeavors:

  • studying physical, mental, and social changes in people as they age.
  • investigating the aging process itself (biogerontology)
  • investigating the effects of our aging population on society, including the fiscal effects of pensions, entitlements, life and health insurance, and retirement planning.
  • applying this knowledge to policies and programs, including a macroscopic (i.e. government planning) and microscopic (i.e. running a nursing home) perspective.

The multidisciplinary focus of gerontology means that there are a number of sub-fields, as well as associated fields such as psychology and sociology that also cross over into gerontology. However, that there is an overlap should not be taken as to construe that they are the same. For example, a psychologist may specialize in early adults (and not be a gerontologist) or specialize in older adults (and be a gerontologist).

The field of gerontology was developed relatively late, and as such often lacks the structural and institutional support needed (for example, relatively few universities offer a Ph.D. in gerontology). Yet the huge increase in the elderly population in the post-industrial Western nations has led to this becoming one of the most rapidly growing fields. As such, gerontology is currently a well-paying field for many in the West.

Biogerontology

Main article: Life extension

Biogerontology, is the subfield of gerontology dedicated to studying the biological processes involved in aging. Some have looked to develop theories of the aging process, such as telemore shortening, the free radical theory, and the like. Some skeptics have worked to show that aging is a biological process that we are far from being able to control. Conservatives like Leonard Hayflick have predicted that the human life expectancy numbers will top out at about 85 (88 for females, 82 for males).

Biomedical gerontology also known as experimental gerontology and life extension, is a subdiscipline of biogerontology, that endeavors to slow, prevent, and even reverse aging in both humans and animals. Curing age-related diseases is one approach, and slowing down the underlying processes of aging is another. Most 'life extensionists' believe the human life span can be altered within the next century, if not sooner. 'Optimists' have predicted a changing human life span, though this has not yet been demonstrated.

Because issues of life span and life extension need numbers to quantify them, there is an overlap with demography. Those that study the demography of the human life span are different than those that study the social demographics of aging (see 'social gerontology').

Notable biogerontologists

Notable biomedical gerontologists

Notable biogerotechnologists (business/applied)

Notable demographic gerontologists

Notable non-biomedical biogerontologists

Social gerontology

Social gerontology is a multi-disciplinary sub-field that specializes in studying or working with older adults.

Social gerontologists may have degrees or training in social work, nursing, psychology, sociology, demography, gerontology, or other social science professions. Gerontologists are responsible for educating, researching, and advancing the broader causes of older people by giving informative presentations, publishing books and articles that pertain to the aging population, producing relevant films and television programs, and producing new graduates of these various disciplines in college and university settings.

Notable social gerontologists

Notable social gerontologists include:

History of Gerontology

It may be said that the history of gerontology begins with agriculture; prior to this the hunter-gatherer societies that existed could only support a marginal existence: food supply was short; frequent movement a necessity. These and other reasons meant that extremely few reached 'old age'. However, it could be argued that in a society with a life expectancy of 14 (such as 10,000 B.C.), being '40' was 'old'. The solution, more often than not, for an elderly individual was to be ritually sacrificed or abandoned[citation needed].

Things changed with the coming of agriculture. A more stable food supply and the lack of frequent movement meant that humans could now survive longer, and beginning perhaps around 4000 BC, a regular segment of the population began to attain 'old age' in places such as Mesopotamia and the Indus river valleys. Agriculture didn't simply bring a steady food supply; it also suddenly made older persons an economic benefit instead of a burden. Older persons could stay and watch the farm (or children); make pottery or jewelry, and perform social functions, such as story-telling (oral tradition, religion, etc). and teaching the younger generation techniques for farming, tool-making, etc.

After this change, the views of elder persons in societies waxed and waned, but generally the proportion of the population over 50 or 60 remained small. Note that in ancient Egypt, Pharoah Pepi II was said to have lived to 100 years old. Certainly Ramses II lived to about 90; modern scientific testing of his mummy supports the written record. Ancient Greeks valued old persons for their wisdom (some reaching 80, 90, or 100 years old), while old age was devalued in Roman times (no Roman emperor lived to be older than 77 and the oldest, Titus, was smothered with a pillow for living too long).

During the Dark Ages, negative opinions of the elderly prevailed; old women were often burned at the stake as witches. However, with the coming of the Renaissance old age returned to favor in Europe, as persons such as Michelangelo and Andrea Doria exemplified the ideals of living long, active, productive lives.

While the number of aged humans, and the maximum ages lived to, tended to increase in every century since the 1300's, society tended to consider caring for an elderly relative as a family issue. It was not until the coming of the Industrial Revolution with its techniques of mass production that ideas shifted in favor of a societal care-system. Care homes for the aged emerged in the 1800's. Note that some early pioneers, such as Michel-Eugene Chevreul, who himself lived to be 102 in the 1880's, believed that aging itself should be a science to be studied. The word itself was coined circa 1903[2].

It was not until the 1940's, however, that pioneers like James Birren began organizing 'gerontology' into its own field. Recognizing that there were experts in many fields all dealing with the elderly, it became apparent that a group like the Gerontological Society of America was needed (founded 1945).

In the 1950's to the 1970's, the field was mainly social and concerned with issues such as nursing homes and health care. However, research by Leonard Hayflick in the 1960's (showing that a cell line culture will only divide about 50 times) helped lead to a separate branch, biogerontology. It became apparent that simply 'treating' aging wasn't enough. Finding out about the aging process, and what could be done about it, became an issue.

The biogerontological field was also bolstered when research by Cynthia Kenyon and others demonstrated that life extension was possible in lower life forms such as fruit flies, worms, and yeast. So far, however, nothing more than incremental (marginal) increases in life span have been seen in any mammalian species.

Today, social gerontology remains the largest sector of the field, but the biogerontological side is seen as being the 'hot' side[3]. Indeed, some have said that social gerontologists look to the past; biogerontologists look to the future.

Academic resources

  • Journal of Applied Gerontology, ISSN: 1552-4523 (electronic) ISSN: 0733-4648 (paper), SAGE Publications
  • Age and Ageing, an international journal publishing refereed original articles on geriatric medicine and gerontology. Oxford University Press. 6 issues / 12 months. ASIN: B00006LAGZ ISSN:

See also

External links

cs:Gerontologie de:Gerontologie et:Gerontoloogiaeo:Gerontologiohe:גרונטולוגיה nl:Gerontologiesr:Геронтологија sv:Gerontologi
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